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CPHHS takes on racism as a public health crisis

Camara Jones

On Friday, Oct. 2, the college will host a lecture examining racism as a public health crisis — the latest example of efforts by the college to increase discussion and classroom instruction of the ways racism and race-based disparities affect people’s health.  

Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, PhD, MPH, a family physician, epidemiologist and former president of the American Public Health Association, will present this year’s Bray Health Leadership Lecture, “Racism is a public health crisis: Now that we see, what do we do?”  

“All of a sudden, now that we are recognizing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, and after the murder of George Floyd and the highly publicized other murders that have been happening, more and more people are interested in naming racism and asking how is racism operating here, and organizing and strategizing to act,” she says. 

In the scope of public health, naming racism as a malignant factor is crucial to helping students recognize what their future patients or community members are facing and how best to help them, says Kari-Lyn Sakuma, an assistant professor of health promotion and health behavior.  

Kari-Lyn teaches extensively on racial inequities in H225 Social and Individual Health Determinants, a baccalaureate core course required for public health majors and open to all OSU students.  

“The goal of the course is to open up and have people see that health is beyond individual health care and beyond individual choice,” she says. “We definitely cover racism; oftentimes, I will argue for students to look at it as more of a fundamental cause of health inequity and disparities.”  

For example, in discussing research showing that someone’s zip code is the single most accurate predictor for their overall health, she pushes students to look at neighborhood factors such as availability of fresh produce, the number of exercise facilities and access to health care centers — and why that access may be limited.  

“It’s not actually the zip code. It’s redlining; it’s how resources are redistributed; it’s how we as a society have decided to structure society and redistribute resources in a way that shows up in our health,” she says.  

She challenges her students to not just acknowledge that racism exists and causes harm, but also to recognize where they themselves are part of the system — and how they can do better.  

That’s the thrust of Dr. Jones’ lecture and much of her work in public health, as well. She aims to teach her audience about the structures, policies, practices and values that uphold racism, and who is not at the table where the decisions that prop up those systems are being made.  

CPHHS is working to increase its focus on racism and its effects on health, in both teaching curriculum and faculty development, says Kate MacTavish, an associate professor and the college’s director of equity, inclusion and diversity. A course specifically on racism and public health is in the works.  

In June, Dean Javier Nieto published a letter titled “Racism is a public health crisis,” in which he addressed police violence against Black people and the disproportionate death rates from COVID-19.  

Kate says more faculty have recently been completing OSU’s Search Advocate training, the Social Justice Education Initiative training, the Navigating Bias workshop and most recently the Confronting Systemic Whiteness seminar. The college is working to move that content into professional learning communities to broaden its reach. 

“I would love to see it be mandatory that all folks in leadership take equity, inclusion and diversity training,” Kate says. “They don’t always do it, and they don’t always take it seriously.” 

She says students have been a positive force for change. Over the summer, a group of graduate students and teaching assistants within the college sent a letter to faculty and staff asking for more explicit guidance in how to address systemic racism in their research and how to support their students of color.   

The letter listed 19 short- and long-term action items the group wants to see from the college, including hiring more faculty of color and recruiting and retaining more graduate students of color. The letter also asks the college to develop a diversity student advisory board; for faculty to give their students a list of the ways they are holding themselves accountable in the fight for racial justice; and for the college to implement a system wherein students can flag courses in need of bias screening and updating.  

“I think it’s helping that students are being very, very vocal,” Kate says. “A university is a big ship to turn. But there are examples of other universities that have really stepped up.” 

Sign up to hear Dr. Jones’ lecture here. To learn more about the college’s EID work, visit health.oregonstate.edu.eid

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