Unique Course Examines Epidemics of Injustice

The UIC School of Public Health is home to various student interest groups, allowing public health students to get involved in activities of interest to them. In the Summer of 2012, students formed the group called Radical Public Health, a collective of students, alumni, faculty, staff, practitioners and community members committed to understanding and addressing the systemic causes of health inequities through radical solutions. Their logo is reminiscent of a math equation, but the square root sign (√) they use helps answer the question, “What is RPH?” The answer is a group of concerned individuals who choose projects that “get to the root” of health inequities.

Results from a Spring 2017 student led environmental scan made it abundantly clear that students wanted to better understand threats to public health beyond public health approaches. School of Public Health students recognized that current social justice concerns such as police brutality, xenophobia and rising income inequities directly impact health equity and they wanted to do more. When Radical Public Health members brought these results to Dr. Susan Altfeld, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, she volunteered to help create the course Epidemics of Injustice: Understanding History to Fight for a Liberated Future, which focused on the histories of the programs, policies and prejudices that gave rise to many social justice and health equity concerns we see today.

Altfeld agreed such a course would be a welcome addition to the SPH curriculum, as it aligns with the school’s mission statement that affirms the link between health equity and social justice. Additionally, she had long identified students’ desires for a deeper, better understanding of many social justice concerns in a curriculum that focuses predominately on system and management issues.

The Dean’s Office was exceptionally supportive of the curriculum addition, fast tracking the course for a Spring 2018 launch. The course was held for two-hours, every other week. Each session was comprised of a one-hour lecture by an expert presenter (historians, practitioners, community activists) and a student- facilitated discussion session, which included an Action/Advocacy Activity. Presenters included Carol Caref from the Chicago Teachers Union, Natalie Moore from WBEZ, and author Becky Pettite.

The lecture portion of the course was open to the community at large, while the discussion and activity portions were for students and faculty only. Additionally, registered students were required to create a final poster presentation that provided historical context for a health inequity/social justice issue. Final poster presentations “Health in One of America’s Most Segregated Cities” and “Inequities of (In)Complete Streets” were featured at DePaul University’s 2018 Health Disparities and Social Justice conference.

Participants in the course chose topics which were both timely and Chicago-focused such as “Prison/ Policing,” “Reproductive Justice” and “Immigration.” Across the span of 14 weeks, Epidemics of Injustice offered seven lectures to over 300 registrants.

One of the key objectives of Epidemics of Injusticewas to create a course in which participants would have the opportunity to understand how historical decisions created today’s health inequities, and to define the role that public health professionals play

in mitigating these inequities. √RPH believes that providing participants with an understanding of this broader historical context will help inform more effective, sustainable interventions. Among several overwhelmingly positive results, a post course survey identified a 76 percent increase in one’s “understanding of historical and structural issues that impact the public’s health” and a 228 percent increase in one’s “sense of how to take practical action to resist threats to the public health”. Furthermore, 96 percent of participants agreed that they were “committed to recognizing history and rectifying historical injustices through public health learning, research, and practice.”

“Public health is not siloed; It is everywhere. This [course] is cutting-edge. History is cutting-edge. This is a radical approach to addressing public health issues,” said Anna Yankelev, MPH/MBA candidate who was a critical voice in the course conception.

Epidemics of Injustice will be offered again in Spring 2019. Contact rph.uic@gmail.com to learn more.