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Empowering Student Advocacy

April 14, 2021

The MGH Institute’s commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion continues to be strengthened, thanks to the work of 10 new JEDI Fellows.

Empowering students to help put the MGH Institute’s commitment to diversity and justice into action is something Dr. Kimberly Truong has been working on for some time.

Truong, the executive director of the school’s Office of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI), had noticed the increase of student activism around racial injustice issues and wanted to tap into that passion and activism. Last spring, months before the Black Lives Matter movement made headlines, she took a first step by hiring two students for a pilot program. The students were provided with training and mentorship and charged to develop and facilitate workshops and programs on diversity, equity, and inclusion across campus.

“They learned a lot of content that they don’t learn in the classroom,” Truong says. “They covered theory and research on the experiences of marginalized and minoritized groups, they learned soft skills like how to have difficult conversations and how to engage in equity work when they face resistance.”

The fledgling initiative developed into the JEDI Fellows program. Ten students are now embedded into all of the school’s academic programs, working with faculty and staff to address equity issues, including curricula that often inadequately deal with how to treat patients of color. In addition to other measures her office has developed, the initiative’s intention is to build on the IHP’s continuing commitment to address all inequities and fully create a campus where students, faculty, and staff feel safe, respected, and able to contribute to its growth. What better way to do that than by having students be part of the effort?

Photo of Kanayo in a hallway at the IHP, she wears a blue scrub top
Kanayo Sakai says students want more instruction
in caring for a diverse patient population.

“So often students who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color [BIPOC] end up teaching their schools about diversity issues, but their work isn’t recognized,” says Truong, who made sure the fellows are paid, in order to acknowledge the value of their work. “We wanted to change that.”

One of the best things Kanayo Sakai has experienced is working with her other fellows. “Our training sessions have been a great opportunity to be in an environment where there’s open communication,” says the Master of Science in Nursing student. “I’ve gotten to learn about what other people think in a welcoming space where it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to be uncomfortable. We discuss JEDI issues and move forward together.”

Sakai, who also is part of the School of Nursing’s Curriculum Task Force, said the training sessions have included critical race theory, which looks at race and power in society, and learning how to create brave spaces for open discussions of race and oppression.

One of her initial projects was creating a student survey to gather data and information that could be used to improve the curriculum. “Survey respondents acknowledged that many professors already try to include JEDI content in their curriculum but that there was room for improvement,” Sakai says. “Students want more instruction in caring for a diverse patient population. They want to learn more about working with patients from different racial backgrounds, from the LGBTQ+ community, and learning how to address health inequity.”

She also found that many nursing students are uncomfortable talking about diversity and inclusion. To show how these topics could be integrated into their studies, Sakai created a virtual workshop, “Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion with NCLEX Questions,” to address questions on the subject that are included in the licensing exam. The workshop, which she plans to hold in March, will focus on different manifestations of disease processes in dark-skinned patients, as well as considerations for caring for patients from diverse backgrounds.

“I want to help create an environment where individual perspectives can change,” Sakai says. “It’s important to change the curriculum but it’s also important to give students the tools and space they need to talk about these issues. If students aren’t ready to talk about them, then the changes that faculty make won’t be as effective.”

“We’re working with professors to see how they can integrate anti-racist or anti-oppression resources into their curriculum so that diversity issues don’t get put on the back burner,” Corliss Kanazawa says.

Photo of Corliss from the shoulders up, she is smiling with long dark hair
Corliss Kanazawa would like to see more communication
and collaboration among the IHP’s programs and offices.

Kanazawa, a JEDI Fellow and an MSN student, also sits on the nursing school’s Curriculum Task Force and is a co-chair of the new group Students for Equity and Anti-Racism. She credits nursing Dean Elaine Tagliareni and the faculty on the task force as being very receptive to developing changes to curricula. “For example, in a health assessment class, we learn about looking at patients’ skin, but a lot of the textbooks only provide information on how to assess someone with light-colored skin,” Kanazawa notes. “Clearly, students need to understand how to do assessments of people with darker skin.”

Ideally, she says, students would learn about inclusion issues starting at orientation. “It could then evolve and build on itself so that learning foundational professional skills are intertwined with learning about these issues,” she says. “I’d like to see more communication and collaboration among the IHP’s programs and offices and a more singular vision for faculty and staff so that they can educate students who really care about these issues and who will go out and educate others.”

To that end, Kanazawa is helping to incorporate diversity values at the Dr. Charles A. and Ann Sanders IMPACT Practice Center, where students from across the IHP provide free care to Charlestown and Boston-area residents. “It’s a place where we can reach a lot of students and teach them as they’re providing care,” she says.

Dr. Patricia Reidy, the School of Nursing’s associate dean of academic affairs and innovation, says Kanazawa and Sakai have been an integral part of its JEDI Curriculum Task Force and expects their contributions will lead to lasting changes.

“I really value the input of these students,” Reidy says. “They help us think about things differently. They’ve been very productive, and they’re really helping us as a faculty to see what’s needed to develop a very robust curriculum that incorporates diversity and inclusion.

“This work is essential,” Reidy adds. “We want our faculty to be well prepared to teach and talk about these issues. And we want our students to get the competency they need so they’re prepared as clinicians to care for a very diverse society.”

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Rosa Ortega was involved in programs that “lifted the veil on the inequities that exist in the education system,” she says. Now, as a student in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program and a JEDI Fellow working with the Department of Genetic Counseling, Ortega is blending her passion for social and educational justice with pursuing a career in speech-language pathology.

One of her most recent projects was to run a brave dialogue session with first-year genetic counseling students. “Brave dialogues are ways to create a community that helps push conversations forward,” she says. “There are strategies for talking about tough topics, and there are tools to help people learn to listen more and understand.”

If a conversation becomes tense, it can be tempting to just text a friend, Can you believe that? As a more productive strategy, she has taught students the Calm/Center, Listen, Appreciate, Respond, and Inquire (CLARI) process from the University of Michigan’s Intergroup Dialogue model to better handle difficult situations. “It allows students to gain a better understanding of the dominant narratives that are coming up in these moments so they can talk about them,” she says.

photo of Rosa in front of a concrete staircase, she has short dark hair and a black short sleeved top

Rosa Ortega ran a brave dialogue session with first-year
genetic counseling students.

Ortega has presented several case studies to students, including one about what to do if a supervisor misgenders a patient during a clinical placement. She also helped genetic counseling students process what they learned at a recent conference about social justice topics. And she has started talking with faculty about how to incorporate different strategies to address diversity issues when they come up during class.

“I really appreciate being able to create spaces for students to come together and push themselves to develop a better understanding of JEDI topics,” she says. “It’s inspiring to share ideas and tools with students who are excited about being leaders in their field.”

Annika Chan, a student in the Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, has focused her fellowship on assessing diversity activities within the academic programs in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. She’s examining unmet needs and promising areas for growth while helping to develop a strategic plan that weaves in anti-oppression strategies.

“Annika brings enthusiasm, creativity, a different perspective, and a passion for the work of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion,” says Mike Boutin, the SHRS assistant dean for faculty and student success. “She has done a great job at connecting various stakeholders in diversity work with our programs and also across the IHP, including the School of Nursing.”

With the Institute on a modified campus schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic, Chan is using virtual forums to discuss challenging topics. One initiative created learning circles, starting with a screening and discussion about the documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. The film explores the 1995 heat wave in Chicago and why people in poorer communities were more likely to die during the event.

“The film echoes what the country is going through now with how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color,” Chan says. “We talked about the fact that things really haven’t changed since then, and how we as health care providers are the first responders to these kinds of issues and global crises. We sometimes think we’re in our own little bubbles, but the environment and global challenges actually do affect us.”

profile photo of annika in front of a green tree and flowers
Annika Chan is researching ways to incorporate diversity
principles into interprofessional health care education.

The event attracted 30 participants, and Chan expects similar screenings and discussions to follow.

She also is researching ways to incorporate different strategies into interprofessional health care education. “I want to empower new graduates, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people who are health care providers to create spaces where we can work in teams to provide more client-centered care for a truly diverse population,” she says.

The experience has given her much more than just preparation for a new career. “I never wanted to be involved in policy change or in organizational change, but as a fellow, I’ve realized that changing policies is what creates positive change for individual patients,” Chan says. “After I graduate, I want to continue this work.”

That’s exactly the type of long-term result for which Truong hoped. “The program is set up to support students’ professional development,” she says, “so that they develop as leaders at the IHP and they take these skills with them as they move into their professional careers.”

Meet the Rest of the JEDI Fellows

Bella Coyne, OTD ’22, works in the Department of Occupational Therapy on creating workshop development accessibility resources, and with the Janis P. Bellack Library and Study Commons on resource guides.

Courtney King, MSN ’23, works in the School of Nursing on developing a “Pronouns 101” workshop and curriculum reform.

Alejandra Luna, OTD ’22, works with the Department of Physical Therapy on organizing a monthly journal club, working with the PT Curriculum Committee to explore ways to integrate issues of social justice more explicitly into its curriculum, and developing a discussion session with PT students on dealing with micro- aggressions in the workplace.

Richard Monari, CSD ’21, works in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders supporting multiple faculty-led task forces and collaborating with other fellows to host community discussions.

Meg O’Brien, CSD ’22, works in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies on data analysis for a survey on the perception of culture and JEDI topics in the PA program and assists with the JEDI PA Task Force’s environmental scan.

Cherman Pierre, MSN ’22, works in the School of Nursing on developing workshops and curriculum enrichment. He also is a member of the student club Students for Equity and Antiracism.