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Pertinent Social Justice Conversations: Critical Issues in Public Health

By Evan Gooberman

Beyond The Wall Exhibit in Connelly Collaboratory, Nesbitt Hall

June 10, 2015

Throughout the better part of the past year, the United States has been confronted with numerous issues related to race, police force and militarization, and the right to protest. Names like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray have become infamous—synonymous with injustice.

Within the School of Public Health, small pockets of conversations were taking place regarding the incidents and the issues, and many people wanted more opportunities to speak, to listen, and to learn. There was an especially apparent desire to talk about issues of social justice as they relate to public health.

Masters of Public Health students take a course entitled “Prevention Principles and Practices” during their first quarter at Drexel. A primary theme of the course is social determinants of health; race is a major social determinant of health. The class lays the foundation for students to recognize race and social justice as critical components of public health. The community recognized a need to build from that framework to further comprehend what has been happening in the US. People needed to express themselves, others needed to hear various perspectives, and some wanted to know what they could do to be a part of the solution. Thus, a few students made an effort to organize a discussion for all who wanted to be a part of the conversation, and I took the lead to plan and facilitate the event.

The first facilitated discussion was organized in April after Freddie Gray passed away in Baltimore after an incident with police transportation. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as this was not the first incident of its kind. The American Civil Liberties Unions (ACLU) found that from 2010 to 2014, 109 people died in Maryland after an encounter with police. Of those who died, 75 were Black and 45 were unarmed. Thousands of people protested peacefully while a very small fraction of people used violence to express themselves. They protested the death and the decades of poverty and injustice many people of Baltimore have had to endure.

In Nesbitt Hall, approximately 25 students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Connelly Collaboratory on a Thursday afternoon to have a facilitated conversation about the police, protests, the media, and race. There was not enough time to cover everything, but all that was discussed was thought provoking and intense. Many people shared personal experiences, which provided a new perspective for numerous people in the room. The conversation really flowed and many people in attendance remarked at how valuable the conversation was and that there should be more like them.

In May, the Drexel School of Public Health partnered with the Mural Arts Program, specifically its Restorative Justice program, to bring nine of its 35 panels from the Beyond the Wall exhibit to the Nesbitt Hall Connelly Collaboratory. There have been many opportunities for members of the Drexel and Philadelphia communities to view and appreciate the exhibit, but some students felt that more people should spend time looking at them. Thus, it seemed like the perfect occasion to hold a second social justice related conversation and encourage members of the community to check out the amazing exhibit, all at once!

The discussion was originally intended to be about incarceration in Philadelphia and the US, in addition to related factors such as race and discrimination. An important topic, since the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people in prison, or 1 in 110 adults. In attendance were 15 students, faculty and staff from Drexel School of Public Health, in addition to 10 special guests. Members of the Mural Arts team and subjects of the exhibit came to Drexel and engaged in the discussion. It quickly shifted to a conversation about one of the true root causes of violence, incarceration, and many other issues negatively affecting our communities: trauma. Having a mix of SPH community members and guests really provided an extraordinary opportunity for all in attendance. One of the subjects of the murals noted that it was the first time a group of people involved in the project took the time to sit down and have a conversation. It was very valuable, and there was a great deal of business card exchanging at the end.

All in all the conversations were great successes! Those in attendance had the opportunity to share and listen. With social justice being so important for public health, it was beneficial to have a conversation about contemporary issues. Many people in attendance requested that the conversations continue in the future. Seeing as the students who took the lead are about to graduate, it will be up to members of the Class of 2016 and the Class of 2017 to pick up the baton and run with the initiative.