African American men in rural northeastern North Carolina die from prostate cancer at a rate that is five times greater than that of white males in Chapel Hill.
Why? Lack of access to quality care? Delay in treatment? Lower socioeconomic status?
“We don’t know the answer,” said Evan Ashkin, M.D., professor of family medicine at UNC School of Medicine. “However, if it was the reverse, you can bet we would have studied it and we would know.”
Ashkin used this example to illustrate how structural racism affects health equity during a 2019 DOCSpeaks event at Carolina titled “I Am a Racist, I Am an Anti-racist.” The Adams School of Dentistry hosts the Ted Talk-type DOCSpeaks events to increase the cultural competence of faculty, staff and students.
“We will never be able to address equity in a meaningful way if we are unable to address structural racism in our society and our institutions,” Ashkin said.
Current events deepen engagement
Ashkin’s talk on racism is one example of the many activities underway across campus that seek to address racial equity in meaningful ways, said the University’s interim chief diversity officer Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special adviser to the chancellor and provost for equity and inclusion.
The University’s recently updated strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, prioritizes creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community through the Build Our Community Together initiative, the first of eight initiatives contained in the plan.
While many schools and departments have maintained robust diversity and inclusion programs for years, recent national events heightened engagement and the sense of urgency to focus deeply on racial equity, Anderson-Thompkins said.
First, COVID-19’s impacts on campus and beyond prompted University leadership to reexamine and revise its strategic plan to account for them.
“For Build Our Community Together, we had focused so much on being physically together. COVID-19 really gave us the opportunity to dig deeper and explore what it means to feel connected or to be part of the community and flesh that out in a much deeper and important way,” Anderson-Thompkins said.
That examination took on new meaning last May when the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ignited unrest across the country. The combined events pointed sharply to the inequities that exist on campus, Anderson-Thompkins said.
Shortly after, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz asked units across the university to identify their strengths and weaknesses for standing against racism, what they are currently doing to combat it and their priorities moving forward.
“The responses we received were amazing. There were activities going on we were not aware of,” said Anderson-Thompkins.
Dismantling racism in health care
Three years ago, a Washington Post article decried the field of dentistry’s powerful lobby for suppressing competition that could increase access to dental care for underserved communities.
The UNC Adams School of Dentistry responded in part by focusing on the larger problem of social inequity. Sylvia Frazier-Bowers, assistant dean for inclusive excellence and equity initiatives, created a forum and learning community, called Dental and Oral Health Community Scholars, or DOCSpeaks.
Originally focused on bringing together a cohort of students and faculty to explore issues of equity in a safe space, DOCSpeaks has broadened and focused over the past three years. Forty-minute talks with a small dentistry school conversation group have morphed into 20-minute live-streamed talks shared via Yammer with the entire Carolina community. Initially centered on bias in learning, gender history and cultural anthropology, topics shifted to focus more intentionally on race.
“Our goal is to enrich both our understanding and our practice to arrive at the point where we are not just aware of and knowing but that we decrease the knowing/doing gap,” said Frazier-Bowers.
The school has used the program as a recruitment tool, sending text messages with links to DOCSpeaks sessions to interested pre-dental students. Prospective students have said the unique forum made them feel encouraged by the climate and culture of the school.
A stakeholder task force created after George Floyd’s killing is exploring how the school can be thoughtful and action-oriented in achieving equity in education, said Frazier-Bowers.
“We want to put in place activities that address the expectations of faculty, staff, students and the community in a more mindful way,” she said.
Disrupting racism in social work
At the UNC School of Social Work, incoming students in the Master of Social Work program last fall read “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.” Faculty members are using the book to jumpstart conversations about racism in their classes and weaving its themes into coursework.
The School’s centennial year speaker series, launched last fall, focuses on social justice and anti-racism with virtual events featuring such internationally recognized leaders as North Carolina social justice activist Rev. William Barber II and Ibram X. Kendi, author of three New York Times best-selling books, including “How to Be an Antiracist.”
And in a key move, the school last year shifted its Confronting Oppression and Institutional Racism course from the spring to the fall of students’ first year, providing a framework for the policy course that shifted to the spring.
“We are pushing our school community to be anti-racist,” said Travis Albritton, the School of Social Work’s associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The field of social work is fraught with examples of racial bias that contribute to troubling outcomes for people of color, such as the disproportionate number of Black and brown children in foster homes, Albritton said. The profession and school have an ethical responsibility to address them. One way has been to introduce critical theories of race and equity into the curriculum.
“Critical race theory challenges you to ask questions differently and then think differently,” Albritton said. “Our goal is to introduce students to these critical theories so they can bring that to their practice.”
As with other units, the School of Social Work had engaged in conversations and planning for how to combat racism for years, before the pandemic and George Floyd-sparked unrest catapulted racial inequities to the national stage.
“But COVID and George Floyd heightened people’s awareness, allowing people to recognize how insidious this problem of racism is in this country,” Albritton said.
Changing the conversation
Intentional conversations and racial-equity training are helping the School of Information and Library Science become an anti-racist organization, said Dean Gary Marchionini.
“Seeing and feeling the passion, the hurt, the anguish from the killings last summer gave me a visceral sense of just how evil this is,” Marchionini said.
Racial equity training has helped him gain new insight into the systemic nature and connection of inequities for people of color in areas such as public health, housing, criminal justice, banking and education.
“I thought I was pretty well-educated and sensitized,” he said. “But this training helps you pull it all together to see this isn’t because of socioeconomics or bad behavior. This is racism. It is in the fabric. It has poisoned the groundwater. That has been the most eye-opening for me.”
Taking steps to create an anti-racist organization, the school has organized racial equity training for faculty, staff and students, hosted two focused conversations on racism with faculty and charged its diversity committee with examining the curriculum for opportunities to ferret out racial bias. Another group is examining bylaw and policy documents to identify language that is inherently based in bias.
Marchionini also hosted a briefing for the school’s faculty on Project Ready, a free online professional development curriculum launched last year by a School of Library Science-led team that is helping libraries become anti-racist and better serve youth of color and Native American youth.
Benchmarking and moving forward
Other examples of racial equity-focused initiatives at Carolina abound. In the past three years, more than 4,000 faculty and staff have participated in racial equity training that provides a framework for shared understanding and a vocabulary that informs both conversation and action.
The Gillings School of Global Public Health and UNC School of Medicine both have extensive programs focused on advancing racial equity, from hiring and advancing a diverse faculty to assisting and advocating for students of color.
UNC Student Affairs has hired four counseling and psychological services therapists from the Black, Indigenous and people of color community to provide outreach for counseling and support services. UNC Research is developing a diversity, equity and inclusion certification program focused on addressing bias and inequity in the conduct of research and dissemination of outputs. An Academic Affairs team is developing tools for creating inclusive and equitable classrooms. A Risk Management committee will conduct an equity review of current policies over the next three years.
Anderson-Thompkins’ office will report on these and other examples in a spring report designed to serve as a baseline for what University units are doing now and their strategic priorities for the future. Annual reports will follow to track progress and results.
“It’s exciting to see that the priorities the schools and divisions have set are not just about numbers, although representation is important,” Anderson-Thompkins said. “But it’s about inclusion — making sure people feel welcomed, embraced, supported and included.”
Success, Anderson-Thompkins said, will be measured by outcomes such as greater diversity of faculty and students, more people of color in leadership positions and more favorable ratings on University climate surveys.
“But overall, I will know we will have made a change when we start to hear more people — students, faculty and staff — talk about and embrace the language of Build Our Community Together,” she said. “This would signal that the culture has moved from one of exclusion to one of inclusion.
Five steps to advance equity and inclusion
Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special adviser to the chancellor and provost for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer, offered these steps to advance equity and inclusion in individual units.
Step 1. Start the conversation on equity and inclusion, departmental culture and climate, and recruitment retention and turnover.
Step 2. Establish a working group or committee to gather and analyze relevant data such as admission, hiring, promotion and compensation data.
Step 3. Engage your faculty, staff and students through focus groups, community sessions or surveys.
Step 4. Set one to three strategic priorities for the first year that would move the needle for your unit.
Step 5. Track your unit’s progress, benchmark with peer programs and continue to engage your community members on what’s working or not working.