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The Start of Something New

Posted on March 29, 2022
Seedling in the sun

March 29, 2022

Guest Dean’s Letter by Sharrelle Barber, ScD, MPH, Assistant Professor and Director of The Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements, and Population Health Equity, and Scarlett Bellamy, ScD, Professor and Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

Around this time two years ago, data on racial inequities in COVID-19 deaths began to emerge in cities around the country, contradicting the early narrative that the pandemic was somehow a “great equalizer” that would exact an indiscriminate toll on the population. But many of us in the field knew that it was only a matter of time before the pandemic’s interaction with a society steeped in structural racism would produce the kinds of racial health inequities that have been well-documented for decades across a wide range of health outcomes. Fast forward to May 2020 and the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked the largest global protests for racial justice, making it even harder to ignore the deadly consequences of racism. In the time since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism “a serious public health threat” and by August 2021 over 200 jurisdictions had made similar declarations up from just 20 prior to the pandemic.

What we have witnessed and experienced over the past two years has been both painful and exhausting, to say the least, leaving many of us with a range of emotions. This time has forced us to reflect on the way things are, how we got here, and what is necessary to move forward in a way that is more equitable and more just— a way that truly values and honors Black Lives. It has also offered us a somewhat unique opportunity for self-examination, both at the Dornsife School of Public Health (DSPH) and in public health more broadly, and to pivot our work to do things differently; to take all of what we have witnessed and learned over the past two years and to create something new – something better. For us, the launch of The Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements, & Population Health Equity and the recruitment process for the two associated DSPH faculty positions in Racism and Population Health Equity are two of the ways our school is demonstrating its commitment to antiracism and making the necessary pivot to doing things differently in the field.

The Ubuntu Center— born out of the pain and power of the past two years— has become a vehicle that will drive human-centered antiracism research and action to advance population health equity. We are extremely proud of what we have created, the collaborative and thoughtful process that ushered in its existence, and the people who are joining us in our work. It has been amazing to witness the response to what we are building here at DSPH—not only from individuals internal to Drexel, but from colleagues across the country and around the world. Our courage to be and do things differently is a breath of fresh air in a field that often has a hard time deviating from the status quo. But as many have noted, “normal” in our society— and in our field— has not been serving very many of us well; and trying a different approach is essential to address racism and its deadly consequences. It is also the least we can do to honor the tragic, avoidable, and unjust loss of life, our ancestors who struggled before us, and the generations yet unborn who will live with the choices we make in this moment. We are choosing to be intentional in disrupting the status quo.

We are also proud of the process we created to recruit two DSPH Tenure-Track faculty in Racism and Population Health Equity who will help advance antiracism research and action in public health and contribute to ongoing antiracism efforts within the school. Our search committee co-created a recruitment process that would attract highly qualified candidates with a clearly articulated vision for antiracism and public health and who demonstrated a strong commitment to the work. We sought to identify candidates who were on the leading-edge of antiracism scholarship and who have worked authentically alongside communities and social movements to translate their scholarship into meaningful action and impact. Our process was inclusive, iterative, and collaborative and reflected a deep commitment to antiracism, considering the institutional and structural barriers that have inhibited the expansion of this area of research in our field. Our search committee also reflected the diversity of DSPH and included both tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty at every rank, across all DSPH departments and housed within multiple units as well as staff and students who contributed equally throughout the vetting and decision-making process. We took a holistic approach in our search, adding much needed depth to the standard academic metrics that have long characterized faculty search processes in the past. The result— a truly inspiring group of candidates who are shaking up the field.

It has been a long two years. So much has been lost. So much has changed in our school and in our world. But as we enter the season that symbolizes new beginnings, we are hopeful that the seeds that have been planted, and our collective and intentional efforts are indeed the start of something new.