Despite representing a third of the US population, racial and ethnic minorities typically receive less frequent or lower quality healthcare: as a whole, people of color have fewer breast cancer screenings, organ transplants and vaccinations, to name a few examples. This disparity results in a less healthy population, increased costs for treating preventable conditions and continued inequity for minority populations.
Social justice topics may not be the most-discussed issue in public health, but the recent Lunch and Learn lecture series from the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) Diversity Committee brings the conversation to the forefront. Led by Sharon Washington, assistant professor in the SBS Department, the three lectures this semester have discussed reproductive rights and policy, racism and immigrant health.
“In the healing fields, we’ve opted in to caring about people, but we don’t always see these ‘political’ issues as a part of healing work,” said Washington. “Health is something that we assume everyone has a right to, but do we act on that? Do we work to dismantle systems that infringe on that right?”
Each lecture frames these issues in a public health context, through statistics such as those above, and provides students, researchers and practitioners with a vocabulary to talk about social justice. At the session on racism and hate crimes, for instance, attendees learned the difference between individual and institutional racism, as well as the distinctions between discrimination, racism and prejudice.
“In order for us to have diverse groups of people in this conversation, we have to have a sense of what the words mean,” said Washington. By learning how to talk about social issues, whether racism or immigration or others, students can better address them when working in the field.
Though connections between social issues and public health are not always obvious, it’s another lens through which we should view public health, according to Washington; just as public health issues are evaluated economically and morally, they should also be examined through a social justice perspective. She explained that, as public health issues disproportionately affect marginalized groups, it is important for solutions to be rooted within the social, historical and political context that produced the problems.
“Whereas history can often feel divisive, knowing that it belongs to us all, and we collectively construct the next chapters, is a unifying factor that should empower us to have these conversations,” said Washington.
Aside from future Lunch and Learns, the Diversity Committee has planned a series of events for the spring. They are planning a Mass Incarceration Awareness Week, including a film screening and panel discussions with people who have experienced incarceration or solitary confinement, as well as a second rendition of the Black History Month film series they ran earlier this year. In addition, the committee has organized LGBTQIA+ trainings and workshops, and committee members frequently share tips and best practices with other faculty and staff in the College.