Faculty Spotlight

[email protected] Assistant Program Director Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal on the Importance of Racial Justice in Public Health

Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal

The Master of Public Health (MPH) at Simmons University is an online program that requires students to participate in two in-person "immersion" experiences throughout their course of study, to gain hands-on public health experience and have the opportunity to collaborate with peers, faculty, local organizers, and public health leaders. Assistant Program Director Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal, who teaches the immersion course, Boston Immersion: Racism, Oppression, and Health, shares a glimpse into the Immersion experience and what the course encompasses.

Can you tell us about the Boston Immersion course?

The Immersion brings students together in person to study Boston as an example of how structural racism actually impacts health outcomes. In early October, we had twenty-nine students from all over the country on campus for three full days. It was very joyous and wonderful to be together in person. They’re building relationships with each other and practicing having racial justice conversations.

During the immersion, the students studied the impact of residential segregation, redlining, and historical divestment [of racially diverse neighborhoods]. For example, we did a tour of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, to look at the impact of toxic dumping and residential segregation on that particular neighborhood. We also highlighted community organizations doing amazing things around racial justice, including the North American Indian Center of Boston, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, and the Haymarket People's Fund. We want to acknowledge what has happened historically and what it looks like to try to dismantle that paradigm. We wanted to uplift the voices of those who are often not centered in academia. As Arundhati Roy says, "There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless.' There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard."

What is a core principle of your racial justice work?

This work is relational. It’s not measured by the number of relationships you have, but by the depth of those relationships. Most academic institutions are predominantly white and operate with this lens of white supremacy culture, which is a set of values and beliefs that are based on dominant culture ideology. One of those beliefs is a fear of open conflict. We never want to upset anybody. We never want to have a conflict. Meanwhile, we're having all these silent conflicts and aggressions and microaggressions happening all the time, we just don't explicitly name what is happening. Upholding the values of White Supremacy Culture is not something just white people do either, we as BIPOC also play a role in upholding it, particularly because it had to do with our survival.

When we're trying to be highly relational, we set up agreements so that we can actually do that work together and say, "you were showing some either/or thinking," or "I think there's a different way to approach this." Our hope is that in the classroom we can create a community that when a student feels like something happened [like a microaggression] they are able to name it rather than leaving and never forgetting those incidents. I know that as a faculty member of color, I feel those [incidents] deeply as well, and I'm sure that students do. What would it mean to teach students how to have those conversations instead of shutting down?

I’ve been trained to look at racism as a form of trauma. We ask our white students to address the internalized way that superiority manifests in folks that identify as white. While sometimes it feels easier to say, "we’ll just cancel this person," I've learned from the activist Loretta Ross that cancel culture has messed up our relationships. We no longer feel like we have the avenues to have some of those conversations and, in fact, that is where white supremacy culture thrives. Cancel culture has become a trope used to shut down the conversation, but if you harm someone, you have to acknowledge the harm in order to move forward. It’s not without a cost. Someone is bearing the brunt of that harm on the body.

This is where I push my white colleagues to talk to other white people. The DEI framework traditionally puts people of color out there to share the harm they experience from racism: This is when someone touched my hair. This is when someone asked me why I don't have an accent or where I was really from. But white folks should talk to other white folks. Ask, what were the messages you got, growing up in an all-white town, about who or what was "normal?" These are the kinds of things we can do to address what becomes internalized. Then, when we come back together in a mixed-race space, we're not harming each other.

Tell us more about the individual and public health impacts of racism.

There’s so much research in public health about how the stress from racism and other forms of oppression actually weathers our bodies, wears out our organs, and takes away from our happiness, health, and joy. There’s also structural racism, which includes policies, practices, and government agencies making decisions that have racially inequitable outcomes.

For example, Boston was redlined in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, resulting in communities of color ending up in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan — though this is shifting due to gentrification — and we can see the preponderance of certain health outcomes in those neighborhoods. The traditional public health approach is to say, those people need to go for a walk every day, eat healthy foods, or wear sunscreen. We have paternalistic ways of telling people that their behavior will change their health outcomes. However, historically, we know that there was toxic dumping happening in those same neighborhoods. We know that those neighborhoods have less access to public transportation, which limits job opportunities, which ultimately connects back to historical and systemic racism.

If we look back in history, we can see who was allowed to buy homes after the war, who was allowed to have student loans forgiven, and who was allowed to go to college. Those were disproportionately given to white folks and taken away from people of color. We can see the impact of those issues on current health outcomes. There are ways that structural racism is actually causing harm and impacting health outcomes, but as a field, public health hasn’t been very clear that it’s structural racism and not people’s bad habits. This behavioral paradigm is something that we're working to dismantle in our MPH Program. In our approach to public health, we unapologetically lead with a lens of naming racism and other forms of oppression.

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