Small classes with a mighty impact

Changemaker Microcourses give students skills to advance public health and social justice work in the real world

Social change may take years, but learning to become a changemaker doesn’t have to.

Since the spring of 2022, UC Berkeley School of Public Health has been giving public health students a leg up on honing real-world-ready public health skills through a series of flexible, one-unit courses that give students the skills needed to advance health equity and social justice, fight racism, and eliminate the social determinants of health.

Dean Michael C. Lu views the Changemaker Microcourse series as vital to his Changemaker Initiative—his mission to make Berkeley Public Health the nation’s foremost school for educating the next generation’s most transformative leaders and most disruptive innovators.

The classes are designed to fit into students’ busy schedules, and, Lu said, to bridge research and impact.

“Students come to BPH because they want to help change the world and address pressing global crises like pandemics, chronic disease, climate change, and health inequities,” Lu said. “In other words, to become public health changemakers—working to radically diminish health disparities across age, gender, race, and sexual orientation.”

Thus far, the series includes courses on public health advocacy, strategic communications, community engagement, and leading change, all taught by leaders in their fields.

Teaching community engagement

Berkeley Public Health has long been a key contributor to the theory and practice of community-based participatory research (CBPR)—the idea that public health researchers should work with, not on the community.

Professor Emerita Meredith Minkler is a giant in the field; her CBPR work has addressed health equity and social justice issues like criminal justice reform and food insecurity. She was co-editor, along with alum Nina Wallerstein, of the first major textbook in the field, Community-Based Participatory Research for Health.

Minkler said that her intent as she designed the inaugural 2022 microcourse Community Engagement in Public Health and Health Care Through an Antiracism Lens, was to help students develop a sharper sense of the change they want to make in the world, alongside equipping them with the confidence and skills to do it.

“I felt there was a need for a course that could accommodate students in fields like epidemiology and health policy and management, who might not have time for a full semester course but wanted to pick up the basics of community engagement in research and practice,” Minkler said.

The seven-week class—a hybrid of in-person and self-directed online modules—teaches students strategies that are crucial for working within communities, including the importance of incorporating cultural humility and antiracism practice in public health work and approaches such as community involvement in assessing challenges and outcomes.

Minkler, who designed the draft syllabus, recruited Dr. Vicky Gomez, an assistant professor at San Jose State University, and Dr. Brittany Chambers, an assistant professor at UC Davis, to build out and co-teach the inaugural class with her.

The three instructors use a largely case-based approach to illustrate core conceptual, methodological, and other foundational concepts in community engagement in public health and health care. They also featured academic and professional leaders as guest speakers, the great majority of whom were people of color, with most from local communities

One of the most popular sessions was a panel on transforming institutions to make them more antiracist. The panel featured Jane Garcia, executive director of Oakland’s nationally-recognized La Clinica de la Raza and on the list of Berkeley Public Health’s 75 Most Influential Alumni (along with Minkler), and Alexis Cobbins, executive director of UCSF’s Preterm Birth Initiative.

“We all have very strong connections in the community and the university, so we really leveraged that to bring in speakers,” Gomez said. “People were excited to be a part of it, to come in and share their experience. We really jam-packed the in-person sessions. It’s hard not to—there is so much tangible utility that students can get out of it.”

“Community engagement is something that I’m really passionate about,” said Gomez, who earned her doctor of public health degree from Berkeley Public Health. “I learned it from Merry herself.”

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of working with communities and not on them,” Gomez said. “Oftentimes people mean well when they go into work with communities, but it’s not meaningful because they are not allowing the community to drive the process. Solutions are within the community, but you only find out about them if you are willing to listen and to ask to truly collaborate and partner.”

Chambers, a community health scientist dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health equity among BIPOC individuals, focused primarily on antiracism research and practice.

“My take is that the students really wanted to learn how to implement antiracism within the public health system as well as in the Berkeley Public Health program,” Chambers said. “Someday, I’d like to have changemaker microcourses across the UC’s, where we can partner together and use our collective resources to train the next generation.”

A “life-changing” microcourse

Rashmi Varma, a Berkeley Public Health MPH student who already has a doctor of pharmacy degree from St. John’s University, praised the community engagement microcourse as “life-changing.”

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it was a great opportunity,” said Varma, who, as a current Albert Schweitzer Fellow, is working to break the cycle of poverty in San Francisco by developing a microloan program for at-risk youth that incentivizes participation in vocational training.

“It made me realize the strength I hold to create a positive impact,” Varma said. “I’m very grateful to have been introduced to the professors, who helped me really recognize the power within me.”

Minkler calls Varma’s work a perfect example of the kind of change the program wants to see students to create. She also believes that the broad thinking and concrete skills offered in the microcourses are applicable to students wishing to work in a wide range of areas, from food insecurity, to homelessness, gun violence prevention, and climate change.

“The kinds of skills we are teaching are critical in doing public health and social justice work in the real world,” she said.

The seven week community engagement mini course will be taught again Fall 2023, this time by Dr. Evan vanDommelen-Gonzelez, with Dr. Derek M. Griffith serving as course consultant and guest presenter. The course will run from October 13 to December 2.

VanDommelen, academic director of Berkeley Public Health’s Online MPH program , has more than 20 years of professional experience in bilingual community health research and education; Griffith is a founding co-director of the Racial Justice Institute and founder and director of the Center for Men’s Health Equity, both at Georgetown University. He is also a professor of Health Management and Policy and Oncology at Georgetown and widely recognized for his leadership and scholarly work in antiracism and community-engaged research and practice.

Learning leadership

Fall 2023’s second microcourse, Leadership for Public Health Changemakers, is designed to empower students to take leadership roles, here at UC Berkeley and in the public health workforce. The course is led by Alex Budak, a popular lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who also directs the Haas Global Access Program, and is faculty director for Berkeley Executive Education.

“The greatest joy of teaching at UC Berkeley is that I get to teach changemaker leadership skills to people of all ages and experience levels,” Budak said. “The traits we’ll explore in class from curiosity to flexibility to courage are applicable to each of us at all stages of our careers.”

Budak, author of the 2022 book Becoming a Changemaker, said he believes that anyone choosing to commit their professional lives to the field of public health is already well on their way to becoming a changemaker.

“My goal in this class is to build on that energy and help students develop into the effective changemakers that our communities need right now.”

The leadership microcourse will run Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 12 pm. from August 23 to October 14 with a second session running from October 15 to December 2. Although it’s short, Budak believes students will finish the course with answers to three essential questions for public health leaders: Why are they choosing to lead? How will they choose to lead? And what will they choose to lead?

“Leadership is a lens for creating positive change, whether within one’s career, community, team or organizations,” he said. “I hope students will leave with clarity on what their leadership can make possible.”

Each one-unit Changemaker Microcourse includes 15 hours of instruction, which is a combination of asynchronous videos and interactive workshops. In addition, each course may have up to 30 hours of work including readings, activities, reflections, and applied projects.

The Changemaker Microcourse curriculum will continue to expand, with future classes in strategic communication and advocacy; leadership, innovation, and futurism, and storytelling.

People of BPH found in this article include: