Black History Month: Black history is American history

Left to right: Dr. Daniel Woolridge, Bria Brown, Funke Fasawa, and Jordan Williams

To honor Black History Month 2023, we asked students and faculty within the UC Berkeley School of Public Health community what the month means to them and what everyone should know about the Black experience in healthcare. What we heard: representation, reverence, resistance, and fearlessness. Below, their thoughts in their own words.

Bria Brown

Bria Brown (she/her/hers) is a first-year MPH candidate in the Health Policy and Management program. For her, Black History Month is a time to be reminded that despite built-in  systematic oppression, the legacy of her ancestors inspires her to continue to break through barriers.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month gives me the opportunity to reflect on the past and present as well as undisputedly show gratitude, rejoice, and honor my ancestors as well as the fruits of their labors. Black history is American history; without Black history, there would be no history. A lot of times we are taught a false narrative of history or “selective” history in the school system, however Black History Month is a time where we can and should become aware of Black achievements, contributions, untold stories, culture, and the plight of our people. Through constant and deliberate attacks by way of institutional design, with the intention to break our communities down, we still stand! The legacy of my ancestors inspires me to continue to break through barriers and when faced with adversity tackle it fearlessly.  

How do you feel the history of the Black experience in healthcare and public health can be better disseminated?

First and foremost, it is crucial to acknowledge and understand the historical trauma that Black people have experienced in the healthcare system. The Tuskegee Experiment and the story of Henrietta Lacks are prime examples of distrust, racial bias, and injustice that Black people frequently experience in oppressive systems. History frequently repeats itself, and today’s problems are analogous to those from the past. This problem will continue to persist if the past experiences aren’t recognized, acknowledged, and confronted. In order to seek change, you must first have knowledge of the past and then actively take steps in order to dismantle a fragmented system. Also, having more representation in healthcare will allow for the Black voice to be heard and seen.

How do you think UC Berkeley and Berkeley Public health can amplify the voices of our Black community members?

UC Berkeley can amplify the voices of our Black community members by increasing the number of Black faculty and staff personnel in positions of leadership. This alone will enhance the visibility of our voices. Secondly, when having guest speakers, it would be nice to hear from a Black member about their experience in the different workforce fields. Additionally, providing more spaces where Black voices are heard and are able to congregate and discuss different matters and events is a great step in the right direction. Lastly, having more financial support in terms of fellowships and scholarships would provide a lot of opportunity for Black individuals to be able to enroll in UC Berkeley and graduate.

Olufunke Bamidele Fasawe (Funke)

Second year DrPH student Funke Fasawe (she/her/hers) thinks that one way that public health can move toward equity is to weave health into all core breadth classes here at Berkeley Public Health.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black history month represents a period of deep reflection of how far we have come as a people towards achieving racial equity and dismantling the structural barriers that exist and have held many people back from attaining their human rights and potential. It is a stark reminder of the struggles and bloodshed of tireless activists and advocates to advance the cause of Black people in the U.S. and all over the world, and how much more work we still must do. It brings a sense of responsibility to continue to amplify the core message of transforming our societies to be equitable, non-judgmental, and inclusive of all people everywhere irrespective of race, gender, or other social constructs that we have created to segregate. It reinforces the desire in me as a person to contribute in my own way meaningfully and practically towards this cause in my social and professional engagements.

How do you feel the history of the Black experience in healthcare and public health can be better disseminated?

I think we need to teach more about structural barriers to healthcare access and how these barriers play out in reality. I believe that teaching public health professionals and frontline healthcare workers about structural competency is critical and should be embedded in all aspects of healthcare and public health. We need more history and health ethics being taught. Finally, we have to be deliberate about creating forums for engagements across the board in the public health community to intentionally call out and address injustices, disparities and inequities in the delivery of healthcare as these affect Black people and others.

How do you think UC Berkeley and Berkeley Public health can amplify the voices of our Black community members?

  1.   Increase Black representation among students and faculty. It would be helpful to recruit more Black faculty members and admit more Black students. Seeing more Black faculty leaders will create strong models for aspiring public health graduates and social change makers of Black origin that will push the narrative of empowering Black people and creating a shared and equal space for people of all colors to thrive in the UC Berkeley community and beyond.
  2.   Expand the number of classes that shed more light on the structural barriers that drive disparities in healthcare access and how this affects the Black communities and other underrepresented communities. Similarly, I think health ethics should be considered as a breadth course for all degree programs here at Berkeley Public Health or at the minimum interwoven as a core theme in the breadth courses.
  3.   Increase funding and fellowship opportunities for research aimed at deconstructing these structural barriers. This critical funding support will support the development of innovative frameworks to increase diversity and representation of Black people and their experiences in the way healthcare and public health is designed, programmed, delivered, and measured.

Jordan Williams

Jordan Williams (she/her/hers) is a first year MPH candidate in the Health and Social Behavior Concentration and a Blue Shield of California fellow. She says that she’s here at Berkeley “to gain new skills, knowledge, and support in dismantling systemic health disparities that disproportionately affect historically marginalized and excluded communities. One of my main goals is to actively push boundaries and create a healthier society by developing innovative solutions based upon research, education, advocacy, and community empowerment.”

What does Black History Month mean to you?

For me, Black History Month is a time of focused reflection, community connection, and celebration. I reflect on all the sacrifices my ancestors have made so that I can live in a world and occupy spaces freely as a queer black woman. I connect with my family, friends, elders, and fellow community members through joy, laughter, and deep conversations about where we are as individuals and as a community and where we want to be in the future. I particularly enjoy celebrating BHM through various forms of art. From singers like Nina Simone, to authors such as James Baldwin, and playwrights like August Wilson, I love celebrating Black History Month with art forms that capture the nuanced essence of a multitude of black experiences.

How do you feel the history of the Black experience in healthcare and public health can be better disseminated? 

There are many ways in which the history of the Black experience can be incorporated in healthcare and public health. True improvement will stem from a deep understanding of the Black experience and how the public health and healthcare system are a part of that experience. Three areas I would like to see explored more in depth include:

  • Education: As academic programs produce the next generation of public health and healthcare practitioners, academic institutions need to incorporate the history of Black health disparities into their curriculum to increase cultural competency and foster an environment of empathy and understanding.
  • Collaboration: Collaborating with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, healthcare organizations focused on Black health, and working with community stakeholders can help ensure that the history of the Black experience in healthcare is accurately represented and properly disseminated.
  • Digital media: The widespread use of websites, social media, and apps allows for information to be disseminated efficiently and effectively. Public health and healthcare practitioners should use digital media to foster connections and to bring awareness of the history of the Black experience in healthcare to a wider audience.

How do you think UC Berkeley and Berkeley Public health can amplify the voices of our Black community members?

Growth means pushing boundaries and questioning the status quo. I think it is important to note that in the process of amplification, people will need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. In addition, we cannot simply amplify voices and then turn around and disregard those voices in the decision-making process. I believe Berkeley Public Health can amplify the voices of Black community members by providing spaces and opportunities for members to share their ideas, thoughts, and concerns honestly and authentically with each other and with stakeholders. UC Berkeley and Berkeley Public Health must be willing to redesign, rebuild, and reevaluate existing harmful systems and processes in order to foster an environment that promotes equity, inclusion, and compassion.

Daniel Woolridge

Daniel Woolridge, MD (he/him/his), is a faculty lecturer and recruitment/outreach specialist in the UC Berkeley/UCSF Joint Medical Program. For him, the month makes him both celebratory and reverential.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

What Black History Month means to me can be summarized by the following words in succession:

  • Remembrance
  • Reverence
  • Resilience
  • Resistance

Truly I think of the month as equal parts celebration and reverence.

How do you feel the history of the Black experience in healthcare and public health can be better disseminated and how do you think UC Berkeley and Berkeley Public health can amplify the voices of our Black community members?

To answer both of these related questions, I first want to highlight that if we as a society are to appropriately disseminate and amplify Black voices and experiences, we must move beyond only using a trauma-informed lens and counterbalance that with a healing/personhood-centered lens. After all, paying proper homage in the form of revering endurance and achievement in spite of White supremacy, is quite different from paying respects in the form of eulogizing only what has happened to us; and doing so incompletely.

Therefore I imagine both direct and indirect ways of disseminating and amplifying Black community voices, while also simultaneously uncovering White supremacy’s enumerable contributions to the nation’s public health status quo, respectively. For example, UC Berkeley, as the inaugural UC, has in its time hosted some of the best proponents of racial equity and self-determinism (e.g., Stokely Carmichael in 1966, Malcolm X in 1963, Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement), and it has also furthered the academic careers for some of our nation’s worst (e.g., eugenicists Herbert M. Evans, MD, and Samuel J. Holmes, PhD, professors of anatomy and zoology, respectively); all records of which can be found at the Bancroft Library. While most prestigious universities today have similar culpability to  Berkeley’s, I imagine UC Berkeley and BPH as the vanguards who can lead more of these efforts given our institutional ethos.