Photo of Josie Schafer from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Josie Gatti Schafer

Asking All the Right Questions

By Jen Greene
Photo Courtesy of UNO

Josie Gatti Schafer knows not everyone thinks research is fun, but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying it.

“There are so many questions to ask and so many different ways to answer them, says Schafer, Director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at UNO’s College of Public Affairs and Community Service (CPAR).

Helping others by coming up with the right questions is motivating for the dedicated team of researchers at CPAR, and with Scha. fer at the helm, CAR serves as Nebraskas State Data Center and is the liaison to the U.S. Census Bureau. In this role, they lead the dissemination of a range of data products and provide insights into demographic trends or specific data.

Schafer says the Census Bureau data is very open and accessible, but it’s also large and ever-changing because they do multiple surveys a year.

It’s CPAR’s job to keep track of it and help others. “When folks call, we can say, ‘Yes, I know where that data is. You don’t need to look somewhere else. We can help you find that data. There’s a lot more data than people are aware of there and we do a lot of our work based on that,” she says.

Besides the Decennial Census, which everyone is most familiar with, the Census Bureau also conducts the American Community Survey, which helps local officials, community leaders and business es understand the changes taking place in their communities.

There’s also the Economic Census, which is the five-year measure of American businesses and the U.S. Population Projections program. “The U.S. Census Bureau data is extremely reliable. We have a lot of confidence in them when we’re using them for data sets.

I love helping other agencies be more efficient and more effective and to find systematic solutions to problems that will just keep going unless we uncover the truths and facts that underlie these really intractable issues,” Schafer says.

Recently her team has worked on focus groups to explore digital equity in Omaha. They have also done a survey for the Greater Omahal Chamber for its Women in STEM project. “We do a lot on workforce equity and access,” she says. In June of 2022, Bio Nebraska and Nebraska Cures announced a “Nebraska Women in STEM” study by CPAR about the experiences of women in STEM occupations in Nebraska.

Schafer has also done advanced analysis to demonstrate the gender wage gap in Nebraska. According to the Women’s Fund of Omaha, Nebraska women on average earn 73 percent of what men earn, with an even bigger wage gap for women of color and LGBTQ individuals.

At CPAR, Schafer does advanced analysis to control for things like educational attainment and occupational choice and age. “There are many complexities, and if we want to grow this economy, everyone needs to have access to education. A lack of bias will let them advance in these high-wage, high-skill, high-demand organizations.

That’s our growth potential. It equalizes access to those good jobs.

We have to make sure all women have the same access and opportunity to those jobs because that’s our only source of growth. We can’t just add more people,” she says.

Schafer is most proud of how the PAR team works together.

*Research is not one size fits all. You can’t answer each question the same way. So as a team, we really come together and can flex different muscles to find the best research approach to the question asked,” she says.

CPAR works with the Nebraska Legislature Planning Committee on a variety of issues, including economic development work.

They’ve covered issues like water quality and also worked with organizations such as the Buffet Early Childhood Center.

The Legislature’s Planning Committee was created by LB653, which was passed during the first session of the 101st Legislature.

The committee assists state government in identifying emerging trends, assets and challenges and the long-term implications of the decisions made by the Nebraska Legislature.

“We worked on LB1024, which looked at neighborhoods in North and South Omaha. We saw, for both women and men, there was this same workforce equity and access issues. People of color and women are not having the same opportunities in the economy to build wealth, support their families,” Schafer says.

“It’s really about what do we do to make Nebraska a vital, economically healthy, stable and growing place? We have to understand that our potential is in people of color and women. Pointing that out is a really big first step in our work,” she says.

Born in New York, Schafer spent her early years in Manhattan, moved to North Carolina during her middle school years and stayed there through college. She worked for a bit in economic development, but after taking a closer look at the way things were done, she realized she needed to go into research.

“Everybody’s just doing things … and it really just bothered me. Like, why would we do that? Is it going to work? Is it going to help? Why? And everyone is always like *Oh, we’ve always done it that way.”

Shafer started asking, “Why?” She decided she needed a Ph.D. “so that at least when I ask people why are you doing that?’ people will ask me ‘Why, is there another way to do it?” She is married with two young daughters. Schafer and her family moved to Omaha after she received her Ph.D. in Public Affairs at the University of Nevada in 2012.

She says she is thankful for the women mentors she has had along the way, including her professors during her Master’s program. “One of the things that they’ve always been the best at is just being really honest with me by telling me that I could do better. It was information I needed to hear and that has pushed me along.”

Schafer was working on a research program when one professor told her that she was smart but needed to work harder. “The tough love’s been good for me. I respond well to it.”

She gives credit to her team for bringing depth and context to every project. “Were all very passionate about what we do. I’m always amazed at what that passion can do to motivate a team to get things done.”

Her advice for those considering a research career? Stay curious.

“We can all get involved more. talk to people. Even when I disagree with people, I really just hear what they re saying and why they think that so I can get to the source and find out what’s the root, what’s the number that’s driving their opinion.

That’s what research is–wanting to know a little more.”