Diversity, Racial Awareness, and Public Health

April 30, 2012

There’s a buzz around campus, a conversation brewing. I’ve heard it in classrooms, in offices, in the elevators; people are talking about race.

As we all become professionals in the field of public health, students, faculty, and staff alike are wondering where and how to strike up the critical conversations around race and society as it pertains to our personal lives and aspiring careers.

Sharon Washington speaks at the Critical Race Think Tank mini-conference on April 26.

One student-led discussion group, the Critical Race Think Tank led by Sharon Washington, MPH 2012, and Dr. Robert Fullilove, took to igniting this conversation around campus over this past semester. Charged with the goal of eliminating racial/ethnic health disparities, the Race Think Tank offers a platform for deep thought and discussion, and studies the work of many important scholars of race including Tim Wise,Toni Morrison, and Anne Fadiman, to name a few. Topics of conversation included differing worldviews and philosophies, prisons, culturally appropriate public health training, and white supremacy and privilege.

Many of us are currently working with or will soon be working with populations of people who are part of a racial or ethnic minority.  Whether we are prepared with the necessary level of cultural awareness and sensitivity seems to be a question on many of our minds. The goal of this student-created and student-run Think Tank was to build upon the commitment of the Mailman community to racial diversity and cultural awareness with a series of recommendations for the integration of this ongoing discussion into campus life and course material.

In addition to enhancing the training of public health professionals on issues of race in society, the Think Tank was an open forum for safe discourse around processing and healing. Every Tuesday afternoon, students delved into the deeply engrained feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, empowerment, strength, superiority, and the many other emotions on the huge spectrum that can be felt by each of us having grown up in a society that still holds strong to a system of oppression.

The culminating event of the Think Tank was a mini-conference that took place this past week.  With Dean Linda Fried, Dean Delva, and many faculty members in attendance, the presenters discussed the content of the semester’s think tank discussions, revealed the results of a campus-wide survey that was conducted to gauge students’ attitudes about their training and knowledge regarding racial and ethnic minority cultures, and recommendations for the campus moving forward. In her opening remarks, Dean Marlyn Delva expressed that “a safe space to discuss these critical issues in the profession is crucial.”

The Think Tank has been well-received and well-supported by the Mailman community this semester, as can be seen through the strong faculty and staff presence at this mini-conference this past week. Dean Linda Fried stood up to express her deep appreciation of the hard work that was devoted to this project and her commitment to the continuation of this discussion, leading to an outburst of applause from the audience.

I appreciate the foundation that this student innovation has left for future generations of our Mailman colleagues. Their legacy goes beyond the tangibles that they have created: a course reader, a mini-conference, a very educationalYouTube channel (definitely worth bookmarking in your browser and exploring thoroughly), and a solid syllabus for future replication. The student group is an inspiration and precedent set for students to utilize this unique school experience to gather, share expertise, problem-solve, and think through the difficult, yet crucial social injustices that exist and undoubtedly impact our global public health work.