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Black students at UC Berkeley connect and collaborate through Black Advocates for Equity in Health

Black Advocates for Equity in Health (BAEH) is a place of connection, empowerment, and success for students at Berkeley Public Health.

The student group was founded in 2018 to provide space and resources to support Black students at Berkeley Public Health, but also has the more universal goals of a future in which the field of public health is more representative of Black communities in the U.S. and where overall health disparities have been dismantled.

“BAEH is really a kitchen table organization,” said member Erika Neal, who will graduate from the Online MPH program in Fall 2022 with a concentration in health policy and management. “A lot of minds come together to discuss the state of where we are in the Black community as it relates to public health. It’s become a place of solidarity during this particular school year because we talk about more than just COVID; we talk about how we can challenge the university to include our voices in the curriculum.”

Christine Board, another member who’ll receive her MPH in epidemiology and biostatistics in May 2021, said, “I think BAEH speaks to address health inequities within the black community and so I think that vision extends beyond BPH. But we aim to find people who have that desire and create a community and a safe space on campus where we can come together and share or talk.”

BAEH is especially important for students who don’t always see others who look like themselves among their classmates.

“My mom is a pediatrician, so I was more familiar with the medical field and that’s what I thought I’d do,” said BAEH member Erin Hubbard. “But during my time as an undergraduate [at UC Berkeley], it was really hard for me to find community in the STEM world. I was usually one of a handful of black students in a lecture hall of 600 students.”

After turning to psychology and African American studies to find a more inclusive environment, someone told Hubbard she should check out public health.

“Once I understood what public health was, I realized it is the perfect thing for me,” Hubbard said. “What I really wanted to do was work with Black people and reduce health disparities. I applied and was ecstatic when I got into the graduate school. The fact that there were two Black female faculty in my department, that was a huge thing for me.”

Now, Hubbard is set to graduate in spring 2021 with an MPH with a concentration in maternal, child, and adolescent health and is president of BAEH, though the structure of the organization is loose, with all six executive board members being equally involved.

Connection During COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that BAEH’s mission is more important than ever, but has also made it harder for students to feel that vital sense of connection.

“Just being a Black student on a campus where you don’t see people who look like you is hard,” said Hubbard. “Being removed from the physical space where you can connect with those people is harder. And every time you turn on the news, you see something that’s another manifestation of White supremacy or racism.”

“I think in some ways our message is amplified it because we very clearly see the evidence that the health disparities that existed before the pandemic are only exacerbated now,” said Board.

The group instead turned to the Internet as a place to meet up and de-stress. All three of their online meetings since the pandemic started have been focused on bonding and connecting. “We just needed a space to hang out with each other and socialize,” said Hubbard.

“I see us also just becoming a tighter knit community,” said Neal. “It’s been hard to go through classes learning about COVID and then logging off, and then that [health disparity] is our reality.  It’s hard to process trauma while you’re still going through it.”

But the group is communicating with the broader community, too.  Neal, who juggles grad school with working for Roots Community Health Center in San Jose, is a member of the Anti-Racism Steering Committee that Berkeley Public Health inaugurated in Spring 2020, and also launched a six-part COVID-19 communications training series called “Disparities, Dialogue & Dissemination” in partnership with the Center for Public Health Practice and Leadership.

The training series has examined COVID-19 health disparities and offers training on how to translate COVID-19 research and information to the general public.

“It’s been going really well,” Neal said. “We’ve discussed the history of vaccines, where distrust is rooted, especially for communities of color, and how that applies to this vaccine [for COVID-19].”

Black Womxn Well

Board has sought to reach out to another community: Black women on the Cal campus.

“We did a campus-wide survey two years ago to people who identify as black women–staff, faculty, and students,” she said, noting that the women who responded to the survey indicated they were experiencing high levels of stress due to a variety of factors, including racism, microaggressions, financial burdens, and academic pressures.

The survey—developed by Exhale Collective, a group co-created by Board—also revealed that although UC Berkeley has created wellness spaces for students of color on campus, many weren’t able to access them.

So Board secured a grant to support a conference, to take place April 28–30, to investigate the culturally specific ways that black women heal in community. (For more information, visit the Black Womxn Well website.)

“It’s often connected to the creative arts,” said Board, “so we wanted to integrate all of these things together to create a healing space.”

Next up for the group is a student- alumni event later this spring, allowing current students to get perspective from those already working in the field and to make the type of business connections that can lead to flourishing careers.

“It can be challenging to not see yourself in your field, but BAEH gives us a space to reach out to people so we can thrive after we leave school in an environment where we may not be represented as often,” said Board.