Campus News

Creating space for equity in academia: answering the call of the next generation

An award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funds continued efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences.

Carolyn Barnes December 07, 2022

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery – and the public outcry that followed – businesses and institutions across industries looked inward to confront and address longstanding diversity and discrimination issues.

As academia continues to examine and act on challenges and opportunities, the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences has been awarded approximately $300,000 over 18 months by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The award is part of their Transforming Academia for Equity initiative, aimed at progressing faculty diversity, equity and inclusion in departments and schools of public health.

The Department joins a collaborative of six other awardees focused on breaking down exclusionary structures and policies and building up pro-actively inclusive ones. Consulting are Change Matrix, the Coordinating Center for the initiative, and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), which helps the collaborative understand how to accelerate learning and create change.

Chanita Hughes Halbert
Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD. Photo: John Davis

“Bringing together a group of diverse individuals from different types of academic institutions is really an important way for us to all learn and grow together,” says Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD, Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, and member of the Department’s Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) Council.

The desired outcome of the initiative is to increase the diversity of health research by providing underrepresented scholars the conditions they need to thrive, and in turn positively impact both individual researchers and the populations and communities their research could benefit.

The right conditions are all that is needed to see underrepresented minorities excel, according to Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD, Associate Dean for Social Justice at Keck School of Medicine, Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences and REDI Council member. Bluthenthal also serves on President Folt and the Provost’s Task Force on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) .

“In areas where our society has either achieved desegregation, or worked to reduce discrimination, you end up seeing tons of African American and Latino excellence,” said Bluthenthal. As an example, he notes that there is a higher percentage of African American military officers than African American population overall.

distinguished professor
Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD. Photo: John Davis

Bluthenthal is quick to note that progress is reliant on intentionality, a concept the Department and Keck School of Medicine have turned into action. In fall of 2020, the School formed Justice through Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Well-bring and Social Transformation (JEDI-WeST) with Bluthenthal at the helm. On the department level, the Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) Council took shape.

The council, originally assembled and organized by students, is made up of faculty, staff and student leaders from the Department. It takes aim at creating and maintaining a culture of learning and health promotion; empowering underrepresented minorities in the Department and research participant community; and uprooting manifestations of racism in academia and health care. The Department also formed a Guiding Team, made up of 11 faculty and staff members previously committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and representing diverse perspectives, to collaborate with the council.

The groups and initiatives are vehicles and drivers for a growing collection of efforts including anti-bias and allyship training, installing infrastructure promoting and celebrating diversity, race climate surveys and anti-racism book clubs. The REDI Council is also leading and informing the essential work within the Department of developing pipelines and mentorship processes, facilitating conversations and reworking curriculum to include anti-racism education in every course.

It is work that the award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will help continue. Being part of the initiative, says Bluthenthal, “gives us additional resources to really support all of the activities and to focus on creating an environment where these young scholars, and assistant professors, can grow and matriculate, as well as our trainees.”

One way the REDI Council intends to implement intentional change is through the development and maintenance of pipeline programs. While student pipelines have existed as programs like the Summer Program in Diabetes and Obesity Research (SPIDOR), Bridging the Gaps and the Los Angeles Biostatistics Education Summer Training Program at USC (LA’s BEST@USC), the Council recognizes the need for more, and is putting new focus on faculty pipelines. “We’re trying to identify promising postdocs to bring in and then create a pathway for them to become faculty,” explains Bluthenthal, citing the need for “an ecology of success.”

Hughes Halbert sees pipeline generation, including institutional training programs, as one of the long-term outcomes of this work. “Institutional training programs are such a powerful and important resource for recruiting our next generation of faculty members,” says Hughes Halbert. “I think that by going through this process of really understanding our strengths and weaknesses and opportunities… it will enable us to generate our own pipeline.”

Students have also identified a diverse faculty as a priority, and Bluthenthal and Hughes Halbert credit a group of students with being the catalyst for many new Department efforts, including the creation of the REDI Council.

Doctoral candidates in Health Behavior Research, Cynthia Ramirez and Brooke Bell united student groups across the Department following a student-led book club examining race and racism, which Bell had organized. They discussed the issue of race in academia, science and health, and institutions’ responsibility to act.

“I learned that the construct of race was created by scientists,” says Ramirez of the reading materials. “Sitting with that, I felt that as scientists ourselves, we have a moral obligation to study our fields’ history, acknowledge its harmful effects, and proactively work towards making it a more equitable space.”

The group compiled a list of student needs – populated through surveys and town halls that the students organized – and submitted it to the Department. It was embraced by faculty and leadership. “I was nervous about potential push back,” says Ramirez, “at one point we were even prepared to go into negotiations… but we were met with such support from faculty and admin. I’m really grateful that it happened that way.”

As part of the Transforming Academia for Equity initiative, the Department takes action to further its progress in representation and equity – as a department focused on population and public health in a large, diverse city. “We have a categorical imperative to do something in this area,” says Bluthenthal. “If we want to change, we have to be intentional. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is providing us additional resources to make that intention a reality.”