Black History Month 2022: Promoting, Recognizing, and Celebrating Black Health and Wellness
Health and wellness experts share how their research ties to this year’s theme, the progress that has been made, and the important work that still needs to be done.
Throughout the month of February, Americans have been honoring Black History Month, an annual observance celebrating the achievements and recognizing the challenges facing the Black community in the United States. This year’s theme is Black Health and Wellness, an overarching subject that covers everything from the legacy of Black scholars in the medical field, to antiracist education, targeted mental health initiatives, and more. In homage to this theme, we reached out to four Boston University experts across a range of disciplines, Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, Dr. Phillipe Copeland, Dr. Christina Lee, and Dr. Craig Andrade. From behavioral and mental health, to medicine, to community health sciences, we learned more about each faculty member’s scholarship areas as it pertains to this year’s theme–diving deeper into aspects of their recent research, advocacy work, issues and/or areas of progress that they believe needs more visibility.
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, inaugural Louis W. Sullivan, MD, Professor of Medicine and Assistant Professor of Medicine at BU’s School of Medicine
I am the inaugural Louis W. Sullivan, MD, Professor of Medicine and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. I am also an attending physician in the section of Infectious Diseases at Boston Medical Center (BMC). My clinical work focuses on preventing, diagnosing and treating infectious diseases. Although my NIH-funded research program aims to improve outcomes among persons at-risk or with HIV or hepatitis C, I have also focused on coronavirus diseases 2019 (COVID-19) since the pandemic. In addition to taking care of patients with COVID-19 at BMC, a safety-net hospital caring for a large proportion of individuals who identify as Black or Latino, I have also been involved in research and advocacy-related to COVID-19.
Early in the pandemic we noted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. Therefore, when vaccines became available, I worked with BMC and the NIH-funded Massachusetts Community Engagement Alliance (MA-CEAL) to increase vaccine acceptance and uptake in communities of color. I led community conversations in churches and schools serving the predominantly Black community surrounding BMC. I also participated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ “Trust the Facts, Get the Vax” public awareness campaign. Now, as part of Mayor Wu’s COVID-19 advisory committee I am providing guidance to the city as we continue to address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community and other communities of color.
I am encouraged that recent data show some gains related to vaccine acceptance and uptake among Black individuals in this country. I feel privileged to have been able to contribute to this effort locally and nationally. Some lessons learned include that “We are all in this together” and that “None of us are safe until all of us are safe.”
It is for this reason that I will continue to work with the medical center, the city and the state to ensure that we continue to center the experience of Black people as we work towards ending this pandemic.
Dr. Phillipe Copeland, Abolitionist and Clinical Assistant Professor at BU’s School of Social Work
A focus of my scholarship, teaching, and service is the promotion of health justice.
I define health justice as the distribution of resources and power in ways that support freedom. Health justice requires Abolition, dismantling life-taking systems and replacing them with life-giving systems.
“Black Lives Matter” has reminded us that the ultimate cost of systemic anti-Black racism is life itself. One of the most brutal and grotesque life-taking systems affecting Black lives is the criminal legal system. In recent years, the American Public Health Association has drawn attention to this problem, including law enforcement violence and carceral systems. My work for health justice prioritizes exposing the harm done through law enforcement violence and carceral systems, countering narratives that rationalize it, and building institutional capacity to mitigate and help people recover from it. My ultimate goal is to reduce and ultimately replace “law and order” approaches to public safety with public health approaches.
Dr. Christina Lee, Associate Professor and Research Director of the Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health at BU’s School of Social Work
Much of my work has been with Latino\a\xs, but some identify as Black or Afro-Latino\a\x, many identify as mestizo, and many report having been discriminated against. I am honored to be participating in anti-racist projects supporting the Black community both at Boston University and at Boston Medical Center through the Grayken Center, led by Dr. Miriam Komaromy. What has set me apart from many psychologists, especially when I started out, is that I have always looked upstream to understand the causes of unhealthy substance use in minority groups — through both social context and conditions of living — and targeted those causes in my intervention work. Unhealthy substance use is rooted in structural conditions and social policies, such as the War On Drugs, that lead to systematic marginalization, deprivation and inequity. We have tended to view unhealthy substance use solely as the result of individual failings. However, substance use, particularly among minority groups, is the result of structural determinants such as racist policies, practices and stigma.
In my early work I thought the issue was rooted in individual vs. individual discrimination. However, over the years my research has shown that people are also experiencing racism and stigma resulting from the structural and institutional systems affecting them. Here’s the difference. Discrimination is being singled out for who you are. For example, an individual could be called names by their neighbors, or experience rejection by Latino\a\x friends for being Black. An example of racism is when an individual is searched by the police for no other reason than their appearance. Experiences of structural stigma include exclusion from needed resources like translators in school, food stamps, lack of access to employment, or employment that is commensurate with educational level. All of these experiences and events contribute to anxiety and depression among the people who I worked with.
The studies we’ve done give proof that people internalize the social messages that tell them they are “unwanted” or “not deserving” of help. These experiences prompt unhealthy coping behaviors because of the low self-esteem that results. A cornerstone of our Culturally Adapted Stigma Mitigation Intervention (CASMI) — which is centered around Motivational Interviewing — has been to elicit discussions about these sensitive experiences in a way that is nonjudgmental and productive, and that re-affirms the individual’s identity and sense of self. It is one of the few evidence-based approaches to show that talking about stigma and discrimination matters in the context of substance use and emotional health, and that it is possible to do so in a way that helps people. I’ve been asked to present this approach in an upcoming NIAAA webinar “Reducing stigma around alcohol use in minority communities”, where Dr. Tamika Zapolski will also present her expertise on alcohol and marijuana use among Black adults and adolescents.
Talking about stigma, discrimination, and racism matters especially in our current “race neutral” society, where race is rarely mentioned in policies, and oppression, marginalization, and discrimination are underreported by the people who suffer them. In a healthcare setting, we should be asking patients about their experiences of discrimination and racism. From a research standpoint, I hope to optimize Motivational Interviewing (MI) treatment in the real world. Ultimately, we have to find ways to talk about these experiences to help people. We should remember that racism and classism hurts everyone.
Improving the lives of Black people will improve the lives of all. We should support policies to improve the lives of Black people who have endured the worst impacts of exclusion and targeted segregation.
One person currently heading this critical initiative is Kassandra Frederique at the Drug Policy Alliance; she is leading amazing programs and policy initiatives to address racial inequities from the War on Drugs.
Dr. Craig Andrade, Associate Dean of Practice and Director of the Activist Lab at BU’s School of Public Health
Given my varied background in the wellness field and as a clinician in multiple arenas, I see so many important things to discuss in the area of Black wellness and resilience. At the same time, the global pandemic, the so-called racial reckoning and the related economic challenges have forced our attention on longstanding racial inequities, social injustice and health inequities like no other crises could. This nexus of injustice is also what drives the Activist Lab. We see, better than ever, the magnitude of structural racism uniquely experienced by Black communities. So, when discussing Black wellness we have to first acknowledge the devastating impact centuries of oppression and trauma — from slavery to Jim Crow, to financial isolation, educational disempowerment and mass incarceration — has wrought on Black bodies and Black communities.
As a consequence of this sustained trauma, across health categories including cancer, respiratory disease, heart disease, mental health and substance use disorder, regardless of social-economic and educational status, Black Americans consistently have the highest percentages of negative health outcomes, as compared white people and other people of color. This is further compounded by the fact that many African Americans are systematically exposed to higher rates of poverty, lower rates of educational attainment, lower job security, unsafe neighborhoods. Ultimately, Black people have far less control over the critical factors that help create states of wellness and long healthy lives than anyone else in the U.S.
Part of the mission of the Activist Lab and BU’s School of Public Health is to help ensure that our graduating public health professionals are well prepared to work with Black communities and other historical marginalized communities across the state, across the country, and across the world as authentic partners in the positive change the world is waiting for. We work to understand and teach the less taught history and less understood racist structures we all have inherited so to develop and employ strategies with community that help Black communities and other otherized peoples to be their best selves and live their best lives.
How do we come to the world and bring what we can to overcome these challenges? That’s one question. The other question is how do the Activist Lab, the School of Public Health, policymakers, and others that, in a sense, have the power to change those elements that I’ve described, act. How do we get them to focus on the elements that are part of our environment that are imposing pressure that is unique to Black Americans and makes those negative outcomes effecting so many? How do we move forward, acknowledge the history, and then change those things to make it so that Black people and many others don’t have to work twice as hard to be just as well?
We can’t change what we don’t see. So, uncovering and learning our hidden history can be enlightening, liberating and empowering. There are some who say, “Why are we talking about this? Slavery happened centuries ago.” In response, it can be said that progress has been made and a lot has changed. This is true. It is also true that the legacy of exclusionary structures, social hierarchies and power based on whiteness continue to disenfranchise and disempower. We are at a unique moment, following George Floyd’s murder and nearly two years of COVID-19, where we are again battling for voting rights, freedom to teach, healthcare access and full citizenship and all of what it means no matter where we live — whether that’s in Georgia or Massachusetts.
The “otherizing” of Black Americans as well as Native Americans, Otherwise Able Americans, Latinx Americans, Jewish American, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Muslim Americans, Queer, transgender, gay, lesbian and nonbinary Americans, immigrants, non-English speakers deserve to be seen and heard and valued. However we identify and present in the world, we deserve to be seen, respected and loved for all of who we are. We work hard to infuse this ethos in our campus culture. The Activist Lab and BUSPH aims to provide ways for us to tell our full unedited American story in our curriculum, research and practice, recognizing that structural racism doesn’t just impact Black Americans, but all of us. We explicitly share our values and priorities with our partners. Then, we look at how we can partner with communities, and use our public health skills to create the policy, interventions, resources to help inspire and create just community where ever you live and however you identify.
For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Dr. Phillipe Copeland on Twitter at @PTheeEducator, Dr. Sabrina Assoumou at @assoumou_MD, and Dr. Craig Andrade at @DrCraigAndrade. For research updates from Boston University’s School of Social Work, School of Medicine, School of Public Health, and Center for Antiracist Research follow @BUSSW, @BUMedicine, @BUSPH, and @AntiracismCtr.