Our People: Rakiah, Deanie, Hailey and Ishani
Real talk: Bringing racial equity to public health
“People are dying because of racism. That’s why health equity is important.”
Deanie Anyangwe (who provided this quote) and Hailey Mason are co-presidents of the Minority Student Caucus at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. They are both first-year master’s students in the Department of Health Behavior.
Anyangwe is a strong advocate for anti-racist social justice work and community-based participatory research; she’s especially interested in how housing and city planning impact health. Mason works as a graduate research assistant in the Center for Health Equity Research. She is passionate about improving racial equity and health equity by building supports and increasing access for people of color as they navigate academic spaces.
At the table with them are second-year master’s students Ishani Patel and Rakiah Anderson, who are the co-chairs of the 2020 Minority Health Conference.
Patel studies maternal and child health and focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly in complex emergency and humanitarian settings. Anderson studies health behavior and addresses African-American health disparities in tobacco prevention and control, but she also focuses on combatting racism and conducting culturally-responsive evaluation as skill sets in their own right.
Together, they represent the core leadership of student-led inclusion efforts at the Gillings School. Recently, they sat down to discuss the caucus, the conference (which takes place this Friday, February 28) and broader concerns about the public health field.
What is the role of the Minority Student Caucus (MSC) within the Gillings School?
Hailey: We’re a Schoolwide, student-led organization at UNC that does racial equity work. As a student of color, knowing you have people in privileged spaces who can advocate for you and plug you in is important. We have a seat at a couple of tables, including on the Dean’s Council, where we can push for the changes we want to see.
Deanie: Some of the issues we work on include increasing funding for students of color, bringing issues concerning students of color to regular meetings with the dean and the larger Gillings administrative body, and creating a space for current and prospective students of color to connect and support one another during their time here.
We think that building supportive communities among ourselves is vital for our success and well-being and we are really intentional about creating a safe and supportive atmosphere when we gather as a collective general body through events like “Real Talk with MSC.” If someone reading this wants to join the MSC family, start by emailing email@example.com.
Why is the Minority Health Conference (MHC) such a prestigious event? It sells out every year.
Rakiah: Both the MSC and the MHC are embedded in a rich history. Bill Jenkins, who was one of the whistleblowers on the Tuskegee Study, had an unrivaled passion for racial justice. He was on the faculty here and his presence was undeniably influential; he worked with others to create the caucus and supported the conference for many, many years. That’s an awesome foundation to build upon. Dr. Jenkins passed away last year, so we’re going to name the welcome remarks in his honor.
Ishani: An early reason the conference was founded was so students could talk about issues that weren’t discussed in classrooms. Over time, the audience expanded to include community members and professionals in the field who want to spend more time in their careers and daily lives talking about social justice.
This year, the student planners added a new element: We created an application for breakout sessions and opened it to a wider audience, allowing us to be intentional about who should get platforms as presenters. We’re bringing in community members — like formerly incarcerated people, migrant farmworkers and other local folks — so we can learn from them in addition to the more widely recognized academics.
Why is health equity important?
Deanie: In America and around the globe, there’s still an idea of who’s allowed to thrive in society and live a healthy, good life. This is not right. We’re at the point where these issues are impacting people of color at a genetic level — people are being born with shorter telomeres — and it feels more urgent than ever to tackle these challenges.
I think the thing we really need to do is flip that question. We need to be asking, “Why isn’t health equity important? Why would the concept of supporting all people in attaining well-being ever need to be justified?”
Hailey: When it comes to the negative experiences and health outcomes of people of color, institutional racism is the furthest point upstream. It all comes back to that root cause. People choose not to take on that challenge because it’s taught as a huge, abstract idea that can’t be fixed. But I’m saying, “No. We can fix this.” We need to mobilize together and take action in a tangible and impactful way.
Rakiah: We’re all part of this work because we’re connected to the communities we’re talking about. For us, health equity is not a term — it’s the lives of our friends and families. And that means our role in higher education is not only about being students. That’s a luxury we don’t have, because our research is not a curiosity project. Solving these problems doesn’t fit within a practicum or a 9-5 research assistant position. We take it all home with us at night.
Me being a leader at this School wasn’t haphazard; I chose to do the work even though it’s an extra burden, because — thankfully — I have the capacity. Also, I know these experiences will inform how I practice as a future public health leader. This work turns theory into a lived experience of doing hard work in a compassionate, effective way. It also establishes the legacy I want to have; a legacy of leaving any place where I spend time better than I found it.
Ishani: Since ours is a field with a history grounded in science, the academic curriculum relies heavily on the evidence base. The problem is, it was primarily white men who decided what mattered when that base was being established. This field is foremost about people, though —it’s about whole communities and populations.
We need professors to think deeply about the content they are teaching and actively integrate racial health equity into our curricula. We need researchers and practitioners to be intentional about including racial equity in their work, regardless of funding trends. They have to say, “I have the power and I’m going to make sure my work is shifting that power, shifting resources, letting communities lead and lifting people up.”
I think it’s about being critical and intentional at every step. It’s about checking your ego and not settling for saying, “Oh, that’s the way that it’s always been done,” or, “This is what I know is more likely to get funded,” because these decisions impact people’s lives.
What needs to change in public health?
Rakiah: When I think about this being the 41st annual Minority Health Conference, I think, “Well, that’s great… But also, why are we still seeing worse health outcomes for people of color four decades later?” It’s because we’re talking, but people in power do not want to listen – that’s why.
Hailey: I was at APHA this year — the public health conference – and so many people were still presenting on and identifying the disparities we already know about. I wasn’t hearing much about how we can fix these issues or given action items to help solve them. I think that’s why we need to focus less on research and adding to the “knowledge base” and more on practice and creating tangible and sustainable change. We need to ask why conducting academic research in a vacuum earns so much more money and recognition than a being a change agent with impact in the field.
Deanie: I want to add that there’s a misconception that people of color are responsible for doing and leading this work — but there’s definitely a space for white people. When white people work in collaboration with people of color, they take some of the burden off us and that is so important. They also tend to be well-positioned to implement the changes we’re talking about. Racism affects everyone — none of us can afford to operate in oblivion.
The thing to be aware of is that meaningful partnerships require relationship building. To do that well, there is some internal work required of white people before they can really understand how we got to this point and reconcile with the privilege that their skin color affords. To understand the experiences of people of color, white people have to be willing to be honest and reflective about their social advantages and the social disadvantages that the elite white establishment has attached to dark skin.
If you’re willing to do your homework, enter this work with a spirit of learning — rather than one of performing — and commit to doing that internal work, then there’s absolutely a space for you.
Read more “Our People” interviews.