Jan. 30 2015
Mailman students apply public health insights to racism and police brutality

Two months ago today, a Staten Island grand jury acquitted the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner, sparking pain and outrage around the world. Students led the Mailman School response, culminating in an emergency forum on December 10 where they spoke candidly about their own experiences of discrimination, asserting that racism and police brutality are at their core public health issues.


Whitney Skillen and Claire Eldred in discussion.

“We were concerned that Mailman had taken such a strong stand with Ebola and other issues and had been so quiet about this,” said Whitney Skillen, a first-year student in Epidemiology.

Brittany Brathwaite, a fellow first-year in Sociomedical Sciences, opened by reviewing a series of ground rules designed to encourage empathy and respect from the more than 400 students, faculty, and staff who attended. Recalling that after the Garner verdict, she cried alone, Braithwaite said, “no one was able to be like, hey Brittney, what’s up?”

Many students felt their instructors paid too little attention to the public health issues brought up by the events. For Braithwaite, the experience made her feel like black lives didn’t matter, and that her own health and wellbeing were ignored by an institution committed to those very principles.

At the conclusion of the forum, Dean Linda P. Fried commended students for their courage and committed to supporting their desire to use knowledge and tools of public health to effect change. As a first step, she challenged the student leaders to plumb the depths of public health scholarship for answers, and uncover areas where the right questions haven’t been asked, namely: are there public health solutions to these exceptional problems?

Now, as they complete their review, the group—eight first-year master’s students from diverse backgrounds, all women—has discovered that by and large public health research has been silent.

In a recent meeting, Whitney Skillen explained that while research on race-related health disparities is abundant, far too few studies have looked at the factors behind the disparities. “We already know these health disparities exist,” she said. “We want to investigate what police brutality and racism have to do with it.”

Cheyanda Onuoha in Sociomedical Sciences was able to track down studies on how communities cope with violence, but they all spoke to community violence, which she explained is used to mean black-on-black crime, not violence at the hands of police. “The research I’m finding may not be applicable,” she said. “The way a community copes with police violence is going to be very different.”

Claire Eldred in Population and Family Health set her sights outside the United States, but even in a country like South Africa that has acknowledged its history of racism and police brutality, the quantity of research on the health aspects of police violence was almost nil. “That surprised me,” said Eldred. “It’s a gap not only in America but other places too.”

While the group learned from the lit review process, guided by faculty mentors Sally Findley and Bob Fullilove, Whitney Skillen worried that published research was being valued above lived experience. “It needed to be on paper to be real for some people. We know it’s real. We know police brutality is a public health issue. We’ve got people dying in the streets every day.”


The December 10 Emergency Forum

Transforming the Classroom and Beyond

Since its early days, the group’s ambitions have been more activist than scholarly, although they acknowledge a place for both. “We all came together as students who want to see change, as activists,” remembered Whitney Skillen.

The first action was a “die-in” in from of the Hammer Health Sciences Building. This was followed by the December 10 forum, which created a safe space for students share their experiences with discrimination in and out of the classroom. “We did our own research,” said Brittany Brathwaite. “People said this is what happened to me. I’m scared every day.”

Dean Fried and faculty took the issues to heart, the students say. At the start of the Spring semester, they saw their instructors take a stand to create a supportive environment. “Professors started their class by saying they want every student to be safe and heard and included and important,” said Lorraine Fei in Sociomedical Sciences.

The group is in talks with faculty leaders to provide training in cultural sensitivity to all faculty. They also want to see changes give faculty the space to be more responsive to events like what happened in Staten Island and Fergusson, and a curriculum that teaches collective action, not just managerial skills.

Meanwhile the group is looking to join forces with fellow students and faculty and the larger community to make the case that racism and police brutality are a health crisis.

In the order of their priorities, Jill Humphrey in Population and Family Health explained, “Organizing and activism rise to the top.”