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Combating Racial Injustice

September 23, 2020
group participates in office of diversity, equity and inclusion event at African american museum

It should have been enough of a crisis that coronavirus shut down the country this past spring. It forced the MGH Institute to close its Navy Yard campus in mid-March like all other Boston-area colleges. But soon afterward, news stories began linking the pandemic to racial health disparities, with people of color facing higher infection and death rates from the virus. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Minn., exposing the depth and daily practice of systemic racism in the United States.

For the Institute, it was more than a one-two punch. It was a call to action.

Less than two weeks after Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests, IHP students organized a Black Lives Matter vigil on Zoom that drew more than 200 people from across the Institute community. “We are committed to the mission of supporting and elevating all student voices to enact change at the IHP,” Alejandra Luna, president of the Student Government Association, said at the vigil. “We care about each and every one of you, and as a result, we wanted to create this event as a space where you could safely express yourself and your feelings.”

The SGA organized the event along with three other student organizations: KinsIHP, Students for Racial Justice in Health Care, and Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity. “Even at a place like the IHP, which I think is fairly progressive, there’s still a lot of room for growth,” says Luna, a second-year OTD student. “There’s room for deeper conversations about systemic racism and health disparities. We have to talk about things like what happens when a Black woman working in a geriatric setting treats an older man who makes explicitly racist comments. What does that woman do?” Days later, IHP’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion hosted “United Against Racism: A Moment of Reflection.” (Read Kamaria Washington's spoken-word piece she preformed at both events.)

President Paula Milone-Nuzzo spoke at the DEI event, saying in part, “I’ve lived most of my life with the feeling that if I tried to be a good person, if I care for others and I conducted my life with integrity, that was enough. 

“But what I’ve learned over the last two weeks is that it’s not enough,” she continued. “It’s not nearly enough. If I’m silent, I’m allowing others to define what is right. If I’m silent, I’m condoning violence and oppression that others are facing. If I’m silent, I’m part of the problem, not part of the fight for justice.” 

Since early June, virtual Town Hall meetings for students, faculty, and staff also have provided other opportunities to discuss ways the school can address racial injustice. 

Naming the Problem

Historically, students and faculty of color at the Institute say they have faced microaggressions and racism, both on campus and during clinical placements. But talking about these instances can be tough. Some fear that speaking out could jeopardize their success at the school or their future careers. Others don’t want to publicly call out someone with good intentions, or rouse anger or resentment that could block progress.

To end this silence and begin defining the problem, two nursing faculty, Dr. Clara Gona and Dr. Eleonor Pusey-Reid, along with faculty emerita Dr. Patricia Lussier-Duynstee and Dr. Gail Gall, conducted a qualitative research study. The resulting article, “The Experiences Alejandra Luna helped organize the student Black Lives Matter vigil. of Black Nursing Alumni at a Predominantly White Institution,” appeared in Nurse Educator last fall. The unnamed institution was the Institute.

The researchers interviewed 16 alumni. They would have preferred to speak with students but had learned over the years that students were wary of sharing their experiences before they graduated. The study identified four challenges: the burden of exclusion and isolation, the lack of diversity among students and faculty, the struggle to find mentors, and cultural assumptions about students’ interests and abilities. Respondents said they coped by finding strength in numbers, relying on helpful mentors, resilience, faith, and, disturbingly, self-silencing.

To Dr. Milone-Nuzzo, those issues reinforce what she has heard during her three years as president. “What I hear from so many Black students and Black faculty is, ‘I just keep my head down. My goal is to get through the day, get through the week, get through the month,’” she says. “That breaks my heart because we want to be a welcoming community, and we’re obviously not achieving that.” 

Building on a Foundation

“As a community, we realize what we’re really talking about is the word ‘systemic,’” says Jack Gormley, the IHP’s dean of Student and Alumni Services. “Racism is in Boston, it’s in health care, it’s in our school, it’s a part of us.” 

Dr. Gormley says students in 2017 raised concerns about white supremacy. But it was four years after the Black Lives Matter movement had begun in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin, and the sense of this being a national priority seemed to shift. “It was perhaps comforting to say, ‘I’m not a racist’ then, but now, as a whole country and as a school, we’re saying, ‘What can we do to be anti-racist, and what concrete actions will make a difference?’” 

"Conversations about race can be hard, and they can be uncomfortable, but it’s important to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
- Alyssa Torchon, SLP Student

In 2009, then-IHP President Jan Bellack launched a diversity council and increased scholarships for students of color. Training programs were developed to teach faculty and staff about avoiding bias in hiring.

When Milone-Nuzzo arrived in 2017, she expanded the council’s work, creating the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and hiring Kimberly Truong in 2019 as its director.

“There wasn’t a common vocabulary for talking about race at that time,” says Dr. Truong, who previously was director of inclusion programs at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We didn’t have a common understanding of what racism is or where the concept of race comes from. Because if you don’t have a common language, you can’t talk about the problem as an institution.” 

Multiethnic group in front of chinatown gate in boston
Chinatown walking tour group.

Even before Floyd’s death, Truong had been working on a number of initiatives about racial injustice. She launched a microaggression workshop for students, faculty, and staff. Truong also engaged in conversations about critical pedagogy and inclusive curricula, introducing the Institute to Critical Race Theory as a framework for racial justice. Working with human resources, the Provost’s office, faculty, and staff, she helped develop and implement the equity advocates’ training for new-hire searches.

She also organized several on-campus talks, such as a Know Your Rights workshop by the Muslim Justice League, and led a Chinatown walking tour with the Chinese Progressive Association that focused on equity issues including gentrification and environmental health. Additionally, Truong has developed partnerships with the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown and Suffolk University, and listened to stories from faculty, staff, and students about their experiences at the IHP.

Earlier this year, Kay Martinez joined the diversity office as its associate director. Hired just as the IHP was closing its campus, Martinez had previously worked with Truong at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The two quickly modified their racial injustice programs and initiatives to a virtual platform.

In June, the school was scheduled to hold its Power, Privilege, and Positionality workshop. The event, held each semester, gives incoming direct-entry students an opportunity to hear about and discuss inequality and health care disparities. 

In the wake of the double pandemic of COVID-19 and racial injustice, Truong felt that there needed to be a more explicit conversation about institutional racism. She and Martinez retooled the June workshop, sharpening its focus on race and racism. To encourage conversation, over 60 faculty and staff members were trained as facilitators for the event. Students responded positively, some saying this was the first time they had talked about structural racism. 

Close to 300 people attended the virtual event, which featured Dr. Taharee A. Jackson, scientific workforce diversity program manager at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. 

Over the past year, the diversity office also has accomplished a quieter but, in some ways, a more pivotal goal, says Martinez: It has become a safe space where students, faculty, and staff can discuss everything from personal challenges to microaggressions and racism to ideas for change. “We’re getting more and more requests from students, faculty, and staff who are asking how they can work with us because they want to revamp what they’re doing,” says Martinez.

In late June, the IHP announced the diversity office would become the Office of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, or JEDI. Its agenda includes a new anti-oppression statement; programs to improve the diversity, retention, and support of faculty, staff, and students of color, especially Black faculty, staff, and students; and a review and streamlining of procedures for reporting bias. More is to come, Milone-Nuzzo says: “The work that absolutely needs to be done is to develop a curriculum that is free from bias and oppression, that’s inclusive and welcoming, and that enables everyone to be who they are and succeed.” 

Headshots of Kay and Indigo with quotes from the article

Taking Steps Forward

 Indigo Young began developing an anti-oppressive intervention curriculum in 2017, shortly after joining the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders as an instructor. 

“As a school-based clinician, I was struck by how often school systems, which we entrust to teach and support our children, enact harm and reinforce the marginalization we see elsewhere in our society,” says Young, who graduated from the IHP in 2014 with a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology. “I became invested in learning about how I could minimize harm.”

Her curriculum pairs knowledge with concrete skills such as recognizing bias in intervention materials. “My goal is for IHP graduates to be innovative and highly skilled clinicians who are dedicated to evaluating and confronting bias in themselves, their interventions, Indigo Young is working to ensure IHP graduates can evaluate and confront bias in themselves and where they work. and the systems they will work in,” she says. 

Young and the CSD department conduct bias reviews of the materials used in the department’s Speech, Language, and Literacy Center, which provides services to the local community. “We don’t just teach anti-oppressive intervention,” Young says. “We strive to demonstrate it as well.” 

At the Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab, director Tiffany Hogan and her team are grappling with how to better address race, diversity, equity, and inclusion in their research. 

“A big focus of our lab is what we call implementation science,” Rouzana Komesidou, a SAiL post-doctoral fellow, says. “We work with our partners, school districts in particular, to create change models that support all students. To do this well, we have to be able to talk about equity and justice, even if it’s uncomfortable.” 

“Literacy is itself an issue of equity,” says Dr. Hogan. “There’s a lot of research on the impact of literacy on academic achievement, health access, and life choices.” 

The SAiL Lab team used an online interactive platform to compile questions, share ideas, and gather resources on anti-racism and equity. “It was a soul-searching moment for us, thinking about our past experiences,” Dr. Komesidou says. “For example, I’m an immigrant in this country, and I have been an immigrant my whole life, so I’ve experienced prejudice. 

“Sometimes students of color who work in the lab face discrimination in different areas of their lives,” she continues. “And we are their academic family. So, while it’s nice to be compassionate and say, ‘We support you,’ it would be better if there were concrete steps that we could take to help. That’s what this lab is trying to do.” 

Hogan adds, “In science, there is a real lack of diversity, so we need to remove the barriers that prevent persons of color from entering our fields.” 

The lab is converting its brainstorming efforts into procedures to put into action in the fall. 

Another important challenge is supporting IHP faculty, who may be experts in their field but not in facilitating interracial dialogues.

 “Everyone agrees that there’s a need to address racism in classroom settings,” says Peter Cahn, the associate provost for academic affairs. “Our students are steeped in these issues in ways that many of our faculty are not, so we wanted to introduce appropriate and productive strategies.” 

To do that, Dr. Cahn collaborated with librarian Jessica Bell to create an online faculty guide on responding to racism. It includes resources on racial equality, the link between racism and grief, and trauma-informed teaching. Also on the radar is looking at curricular content and how the interprofessional patient care approach taught to all students can be intertwined with diversity. “Students will be better at advocating for change and social justice if they know how to collaborate and work as a team member across different health professions,” says Cahn.

To help diversify faculty hiring, the IHP just graduated its first class of equity advocates. They are a group of more than a dozen faculty and staff who are, Cahn says, “the guardians of a process.” Equity advocates, who serve as members of faculty search committees, will examine whether outreach and job advertising for faculty positions are broad enough to attract diverse candidates. 

“It’s a structural change that we’re embedding in every faculty search,” he says. “We aren’t just accelerating, we’re going deeper. We’re looking at structures. How, for example, do we hire vendors? Are our dollar decisions aligned with our values? That’s a structural level we hadn’t considered before.” 

A Hopeful Future

Profile photo of Dr. Pusey-Reid

Dr. Eleonor Pusey-Reid

“I am hopeful that now is when we are going to make our campus a safe place where everyone feels that they have had a meaningful experience, and that this boosts our reputation as a place that is good for minority students,” says Dr. Pusey-Reid, the assistant professor of nursing who is co-author of the paper on the experience of Black alumni. “That’s going to make it better for all students.” 

Alyssa Torchon, a speech-language pathology student, says she would like to see more Black faculty and staff. “I would also love to see more support for students of color to help them navigate the IHP, which is a predominantly white space and a reflection of what many of our careers will look like. We need to learn to navigate these spaces,” she says. 

A Haitian-American, Torchon attended New York City’s Queens College, where diversity is a given at a school in which nearly two-thirds of its students are of color. 

“I would also love to see more training for all staff and faculty,” she says.“Conversations about race can be hard, and they can be uncomfortable, but it’s important to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” 

Katherine Mulcahy, the school’s director of alumni relations, has heard from alumni of color and white alumni who attended one of the virtual conversation events offered in collaboration with the Office of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion over the last couple of months. “All of the attendees were glad to know that this conversation is now happening,” she says, noting that many said they would return to campus and speak with current students, help with making changes, or play a role in admissions efforts. “We are going to keep listening to alumni of color to learn more about what they experienced, find out how the Institute can help them as professionals, and offer alums opportunities to connect back with students of color.”

Looking ahead, JEDI director Truong says the Institute is developing momentum that can lead to meaningful changes. 

“We’re talking about the curriculum. We’re talking about policies and practices. We’re talking about every- thing,” she says. “Last year, when I first started, I didn’t think that we would be ready to have certain conversations. I don’t think I could have said words like ‘anti-Black racism,’ ‘anti-Asian racism,’ or ‘anti-racism’ in general. But people are much more open, and we’re having these conversations now as a community. We are going beyond just conversations, and also committing to engage in anti-oppressive work.” 

To do that, the school announced an anti-oppression initiative to think boldly about race and bring together all members of the IHP community to address systemic racial injustice and create a supportive and inclusive campus.

Milone-Nuzzo welcomes the opportunity for growth. “I would love to see the IHP be an environment where everyone feels welcome and included and has the feeling that they belong to an organization that has an anti- oppressive, supportive, collaborative curriculum,” she says. 

“If we can accomplish that, if we can build a culture where everyone feels that they can be themselves and contribute and belong, then when problems arise, we would be in a strong position to deal with them,” she continues. “We would know how to collaborate as a community. We would know how to include everyone’s voices. We would have the structures in place to do this. That would be my ideal.”

- By Alyssa Haywoode

Photos of Kim Truong and Alejandra Luna with quotes from the article