Gilbert Gee, professor of community health sciences in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, along with several former students, recently received the 2018 Award for Innovative Public Health Curriculum from Delta Omega, a national honor society for public health.

The award, which was presented recently at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting in San Diego, lauded Gee and eight former students for developing a course that explored racism as a cause of health disparities.

In 2015, a barrage of incidents, including the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland, Ohio police officer, the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, and the shooting of nine people who are black at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, intensified the national conversation about violence directed at people who are black. That year in particular led many students at the Fielding School to question why anti-black violence wasn’t widely discussed as a public health crisis, said Amelia Fay-Berquist, who graduated with a master’s in public health in 2017.

“As we were going through the chaos of our first year in grad school and the rigor of the program and all the new things we were being introduced to, we talked amongst ourselves about why isn’t this being addressed in our core courses,” she said.

Fay-Berquist and fellow students formed a group called Community Health Sciences Grads for Racial Justice. Gee volunteered to assist them as an adviser. The students created a class titled, “We Gon’ Be Alright: Addressing Racism and Anti-Black Violence as a Public Health Crisis.” Twenty-five fellow master’s in public health students enrolled. 

“Good science looks at all the plausible explanations of a problem,” Gee said. “What are the things that cause health disparities? We might think of access to care, poverty, social class, culture, genetics but alongside those potential explanations is racism.”

In addition to Fay-Berquist, the former students who led the class include Nicole Garcia, Elida Ledesma, Ashley Lewis, Sally Saleh and Marisol Torres, who all graduated in 2016, as well as Sarah Jane Smith and Saron Selassie, who both graduated in 2017.

Ledesma says the course investigated how racism plays a role in well-known public health issues such as food insecurity, mental health and black mortality rates.

She added that one of her favorite parts about the course is that it allowed for each student to share their personal experiences. “I think this course really changed what academia looks like in terms of who holds knowledge,” she said. “Who is in the room and what experiences they’ve had matters.”