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Brown School of Public Health announces Actions to Confront Anti-Black Racism

Dean Jha discusses changing the face of public health, collaboration with Tougaloo College

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health, announced Actions to Confront Anti-Black Racism on Sept. 23, building upon the School’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. 

The plan includes modifications to increase diversity and inclusivity in research, faculty and staff hiring and public health pedagogy. “As a School dedicated to improving the lives and health and well-being of people in our community and around the world, we must be part of the solution to end racism in America,” Jha wrote in the announcement. 

Anti-Black racism in the United States is a large factor “prevent(ing) people from achieving long, healthy lives,” Jha said. “Take almost any statistic and it is worse for Black Americans, and racism is a really fundamental part of that.”

“My ambition is very clear,” Jha said: “We need to change the face of public health leadership in America, and if that’s not what we achieve, then I will feel like we will have failed.”

The plan was a “collective effort with a lot of engagement,” including the diversity and inclusion committees across schoolwide departments, Jha said. The process of drafting the Action Plan began before Jha assumed his position as dean Sept. 14.  “Once I got involved in it, for me, it felt very personal. I’ve spent 15 plus years thinking about and studying these issues, and now I had the chance in a very different way than I’ve had before” to implement changes, he said.

One aspect of the plan is to promote diverse student recruitment, in part through the recently launched Brown-Tougaloo Health Equity Scholars program. Through the program, the School of Public Health has committed to admitting up to five current students or graduates of Tougaloo College — a historically Black college in Mississippi. The program “includes a full tuition scholarship, enhanced mentorship and internships focused on training the next generation of public health leaders,” according to a School of Public Health announcement June 8.

Since 1964, a long-standing partnership between Brown and Tougaloo College “has allowed generations of students and faculty at both institutions to visit with each other and learn from each other,” according to the Brown-Tougaloo Health Equity Scholars announcement. “The need to focus on equity has come again into sharp relief with the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color. The combination of systemic racism, the coronavirus pandemic and disproportionate economic devastation has made it clear that we must all respond,” according to this announcement. 

Wendy White, principal investigator and director of the Jackson Heart Study Education Center at Tougaloo College, is “very excited” about the initiative and believes “it’s a natural fit,” she said. “We’ve been working toward doing something like this for years. It’s unfortunate that we had to have all this socio-political unrest and a pandemic to bring it together. ... I’m glad that we’re engaging in this.”

Tougaloo College was one of the forerunners in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. White believes the Scholars program will help combat anti-Black racism because this background means “the students are coming there sensitive to the needs of African American communities … Brown will provide them that extra knowledge that they need to have to combat the racism that they’ve seen in their lives.”  

White said she hopes the program continues to grow in the future. She wants to see more research projects, and would “like to see those research projects be community-based and whatever outcomes they have are shared with the African American community,” White said.

Jha hopes for expansion as well. “Our number one priority beyond (COVID-19) and keeping people safe is building a program,” but he does not want to wait five years to expand it: “No, we’re going to expand it soon,” he said. “The Tougaloo Health Equity Scholars program is a very important start, but it’s a start.” 

“I want (the School of Public Health) to be a place that over the next 10 years you can look back, whether I’m here or not … and say that this school and this university have played a pivotal role in transforming the leadership of public health in America,” Jha said. “My goal is to expand this program very substantially to build up a whole set of activities around leadership development.”

Jha said that he is motivated to pursue this initiative because the public health community in the United States is such a diverse group of nurses, social workers, physicians and other health practitioners. But, “when you look at leadership of public health in America — not so diverse. It’s primarily white. I think that is not acceptable and … I want the Brown University School of Public Health to be a place that changes that over the next decade,” Jha said.


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