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Creating an anti-racist framework for a public health foundations course

In the aftermath of the 2020 nationwide racial justice protests, the Maternal Child, and Adolescent Health (MCAH) division at UC Berkeley School of Public Health introduced an anti-racist framework to its foundations course to deepen racial awareness among students.

“We felt a strong moral responsibility to make our class responsive to the structural racism that was playing out in front of everyone’s eyes , and to prepare students to understand and embrace what it means to be anti-racist MCH leaders,” wrote Drs. Cassondra Marshall, Michael Bakal, Julianna Deardorff, and Cheri Pies, and Dean Michael C. Lu, co-authors of a paper published in Graduate Education, which concluded that their course design can help MPH professionals confront racism in professional settings.

Marshall, assistant  professor of maternal, child, and adolescent health at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and Bakal, PhD candidate at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, introduced anti-racist pedagogy for the first time into their fall 2020 course at UC Berkeley, Foundations of Maternal and Child Health Policy, Practice, and Science.

The class structure revolved around building on students prior knowledge of race, creating a common purpose and vocabulary, organizing activities that reflect real-world problems in the workplace, and building on students’ ability to recognize and address structural racism.

“We wanted our course curriculum and pedagogy to meet this moment, particularly given the stark and persistent inequities by race across numerous maternal and child health outcomes,” said Marshall. “Based on my conversations with students, I do believe that [they] walked away with a better understanding of structural racism and ways to disband it.”

The foundations course typically prepares MCAH students for workforce readiness by introducing key topics concerning motherhood, children, and the history of MCAH policies. To ensure pupils felt safe enough to discuss matters related to race, Marshall and Bakal expanded on the “communities of practice” approach already used in the professional development of public health practitioners. This allowed students to build a sense of community by committing to bettering themselves in the pursuit of racial justice.

Overall, Marshall found that trainees viewed the class positively and course evaluations had a high effectiveness rating. However, she also emphasized that the study’s findings ultimately reflect her and Bakal’s perspectives and future formal evaluation of students’ attitudes toward the course content is necessary to gaining a true understanding of which changes are having their intended impact.

“My hope is that our work with the foundations course opens a broader conversation about how [faculty] can better equip trainees in maternal, child, and adolescent health to confront structural racism in the public work they do.”