While 2020 has been the year of COVID, it has also been a serious year of racial reckoning. Far too often this year, Americans have watched and heard about unarmed Black men and women being killed by police in states all across the country. Many have become household names, a rallying cry to finally do something. Names like Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and, of course, George Floyd.

Sadly, 2020 is not an outlier in this regard, and killings of Black Americans by police is not uncommon. According to Statista the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans is much higher than for any other ethnicity.1  Just as the rate of illness and death is much higher for Black Americans with heart disease, hypertension, and even COVID-19.

“We are beyond the need for days of reflection,” said Dean Thomas LaVeist in a school address earlier this year. “We are beyond the days for incremental change. The country needs major fundamental change. There can be no disagreement with that statement.  If we are going to root out racism from our country, change is needed not just in policing, but all sectors of society – even public health.”

With that idea in mind, LaVeist committed to a set of goals for the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, goals that will put health and racial equity at the forefront of the school’s priorities. His efforts are designed to create lasting change.

A thorough grounding in health equity

According to LaVeist, most public health schools and programs give token attention to the topics of health equity, health disparities, or minority health with elective courses taken only by students with a specific interest in these topics.

“Most likely the students who most need the course will never take it,” he says. “But I would go as far as to say that a basic knowledge of cultural competency, health equity and U.S. history as it relates to race are core competencies and should be required of anyone working in public health both here and abroad. Nobody should be granted a public health degree from an accredited school without these competencies.”

To achieve this goal, faculty at the school are developing a set of competencies that will ground students in the history of race in this country and issues of health and equity. The school’s foundational courses will then be redesigned to center them around these new competencies.

LaVeist doesn’t want to be alone in this effort. In 2019 he joined the the board of directors of the Association of Schools and Programs in Public Health and in that role he is [BDD1] advocating to the Council on Education for Public Health to adopt the same or similar competencies so that all future public health workers will have the necessary skills to work in diverse communities.

Beyond foundational competencies, all faculty will participate in an interactive workshop that the school will host. The workshop will guide faculty in ways to incorporate health equity issues into their existing courses. An incentive program will encourage to faculty to modify their courses and will provide financial resources to help them with the retooling.

Center for Health Equity

Tulane President Mike Fitts announced earlier this year that the university would establish a Center for Health Equity. Faculty from the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine will have a primary role in the interdisciplinary center, which will also have representation from across the university.

The goal of the Center for Health Equity at Tulane will be to expand the school’s community engagement to address health inequalities in New Orleans and the Gulf South, and to leverage and build upon the university’s ongoing interdisciplinary research, training, and practice to find lasting solutions that will improve health across entire communities.

Enhancing the student experience

The school is already taking several steps to ensure that students feel well represented by staff and faculty who understand the issues they may face. One of the first steps in this process was in the hiring of Dr. Erica Whitiker as assistant dean for student experience [link to affiliated article]. In this new role, Whitiker has been tasked with ensuring that every student has a first-class experience at the school, in particular students of color, sexual minorities, and students from abroad.

In the coming year, the school will establish a visiting professorship in health equity with the goal of annually bringing in outside perspectives on health equity to both students and faculty.

The school will also establish a postdoctoral training program for scholors of color. LaVeist anticipates that this program will serve as a first step in recruiting more faculty of color, which has already been a priority of the school.

“Some schools have appointed chief diversity officers,” said LaVeist. “Many times, these appointments result in other leaders feeling that the CDO’s appointment absolves them of the responsibility to also attend to diversity issues.”

Rather than appointing another leader to focus on diversity, LaVeist wants this charge to remain in his court. To ensure that he will be intrinsically involved int hese efforts, he plans to appoint a Diversity and Equity Inclusion advisor who can provide him with the support needed to stay current on best practices and remain aware of new initiatives in this area.

Community involvement

Although LaVeist wishes to remain centered around diversity issues, he is aware that he cannot do it alone. In the spring he established a Racism Task Force made up of students, staff, and faculty. The task force has already helped to establish a resource page [link] with academic and non-academic tools and information to help the school community in fighting racism in the classroom and beyond.

As cities, towns, and universities consider the names and images used to represent their communities, the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine has been doing the same. Students had expressed concerns to LaVeist about the cultural sensitivity of some of the artwork in the building. Prior to the start of the fall semester and the return to in-person classes, existing artwork on the main classroom floor was removed and fresh, new graphics were installed.

“The signs, symbols and artwork we choose to display are emblematic of who we are. What we value,” said LaVeist. The Racism Task Force will continue to advise the dean about the appropriateness of remaining artwork in the building.

The most diverse

All of the school’s goals toward health equity and diversity result in the dean’s final, overarching goal: that the Tulane School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine will be the most diverse school of public health in the country. LaVeist sees this diversity not just in terms of race, but also ethnicity, economic status, and sexual preference. And diverse not only among the student body but also the staff and faculty.

Becoming the most diverse school is not just a lofty ambition he has set for the school. “I encourage all schools of public health to set this same goal,” he declared. “Clearly, we cannot all be the most diverse school. But how much progress could be made if we all competed for that title?”

1 https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/