A posed group photo of a multiracial group

Student Anti-Racism Corps Partners for Change

October 13, 2023

The 2020 murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans sparked a mass protest movement to push for meaningful change. Close to home, members of the Columbia Mailman Black and Latinx Student Caucus successfully advocated for a formal effort to accelerate efforts to transform Columbia Mailman through an antiracist lens. Today, students continue to be at the forefront of that effort, known as FORWARD (Fighting Oppression, Racism, and White Supremacy through Action, Research, and Discourse)

Working in pairs, student leaders known as FORWARD Fellows embed in departments and programs schoolwide to identify opportunities to center antiracism in the classroom, forge links with community organizations, and more. This year’s cohort of eight Fellows—up from six last year—got to work in September.

“In the crucial work they are doing, our Forward FELLOWS are bringing ideas and energy to realize our vision of a more antiracist and inclusive school,” says Leah Hooper, Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning, who led the development of the program and heads it up. “They’re not peripheral to this work: they’re essential thought partners working with faculty, administrative leaders, and members of our community in a true collaboration. It’s a unique opportunity for them to peel back the curtain to see how our School functions and bring their perspectives to the table to effect positive change.”

Since the program launched last year, Fellows have been active in Environmental Health Sciences, Population and Family Health, and Sociomedical Sciences, where they have identified strategies for incorporating antiracism into curricula and how classes are taught. In Health Policy and Management, they are working to increase the number of community-based organizations that the department and its students collaborate with as part of its Consulting Practice course and beyond. Separately, students also serve on the FORWARD Action Corps, along with faculty, staff, and alumni, where they have contributed to progress outlined in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health.

MPH student Moza Mendes is one of two FORWARD Fellows working on the Consulting Practice project. “I look forward to working with community leaders, to increase the representation of communities of color. Increasing opportunities to partner with and learn from community leaders will only improve the quality of education students receive,” Mendes says.

Other FORWARD Fellows are at the vanguard of shaping the School’s future-facing educational offerings, working in partnership with leaders in the School’s Office of Online Learning. This effort is geared toward building a digital resource with information from and about local community programs that serve public health needs. Known as PLACE (People, Location, Assets, Community, Equity) Forward, the archive features video portraits of community leaders and School-community partnerships. One example is LEARNIT (Learning, Evaluation, and Assessing Resources and Needs in Informational Technology), which focuses on digital literacy during the height of the pandemic. Looking ahead, the PLACE Forward archive will be incorporated into online classes, highlighting the value of learning from specific places and communities to advance racial equity.

“I’m excited about engaging with community leaders in Washington Heights and beyond. It will be a learning experience to hear from them,” said MPH student and FORWARD Fellow Janelle Micaela S. Panganiban. “Our goal is to create a resource for learning that spotlights the voices and knowledge of community members.”

A separate digital archive called Community Spotlight is highlighting community engagement at the local, domestic, and international levels for organizations that may not be traditionally in the public health arena but serve important public health needs. Additions to the archive are made by first-year MPH students taking the Leadership course as part of the Core curriculum. Fellows are active with that project, too, helping organize events with community members and maintaining the archive.

Efforts by FORWARD Fellows promise to make an impact far beyond the local community—and potentially shape the School’s practices for decades to come. At ICAP at Columbia, a global center based at the School, one project focused on developing a guide for anti-racist practice. In the School’s Office of Career Services, Jessica Yuen, MPH ’23, organized and analyzed data, in partnership with Heather Krasna, Associate Dean, Career and Professional Development, who presented the findings at the annual meeting of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. The data showed no disparities in career counseling sessions or employment outcomes by race or ethnicity and found that students who had never taken advantage of career services had poorer outcomes. Future work will explore other potential disparities.

Yuen said she “really enjoyed working with Mailman leaders,” and appreciated the chance to “understand opportunities in how our practice could empower students to pursue careers they want and reduce disparities we are seeing in our workforce.” Krasna said Yuen “was instrumental to helping us understand how our services are being used and by whom,” adding, “I’m grateful for her partnership.”