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Social Justice: Policy, Practice, and Research


HBS faculty members, Lauren Parker, PhD, MPH, and Keilah Jacques, MSW, discuss leveraging social media to build upon the legacy of organizing, facilitating virtual service-learning opportunities, and launching their HBS Summer Institute course, Social Justice: Policy, Practice, and Research.

Course title: Social Justice: Policy, Practice, and Research
Course number: 410.619.11
Credits: 4
Instruction format: Synchronous, online 
Course schedule: Monday 06/21/2021 - Thursday 07/01/2021, 1:30 p.m. - 4:50 p.m.
Term: Summer Institute

Launching Social Justice: Policy, Practice, and Research, a new Summer Institute course hosted in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society, has been a two-year journey. Crafted around social justice frameworks for public health, the course offers students opportunities to apply their knowledge to research, policy, and practice through service-learning projects, Twitter chats, and more.

The class is the brainchild of HBS faculty members Lauren Parker, PhD, MPH and Keilah Jacques, MSW. Their partnership began through the SOURCE Service-Learning Academy, a year-long training program that guides faculty and community fellows in designing partnerships and courses around service-learning and experiential learning.

Parker, assistant scientist in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society, joined the Service-Learning Faculty Fellows Program in 2019. An HBCU-trained sociologist, she observed the need for a class exploring how to center social justice in all aspects of public health work. So, in partnership with Jacques, assistant director of academic-service learning at SOURCE, Parker set to work developing a class to not only equip students with a fundamental understanding of social justice, but amplify the work of Black thinkers and theories, from critical race theory to Black feminist thought. The result, Social Justice: Policy, Practice, and Research, is a new class that provides a comprehensive framework to guide students’ own public health work, both inside and outside of the classroom.

With the start of the HBS Summer Institute rapidly approaching, Parker and Jacques sat down with HBS Stories to reflect on centering social justice in public health training, facilitating service-learning partnerships during the pandemic, and using social media to build upon the legacy of organizing and social justice movements.

What first sparked your interest in public health?

Lauren Parker, PhD, MPH: As a sociologist trained at an HBCU, I was fascinated by W.E.B. Du Bois. He was a sociologist, but a lot of his work also involved looking at the disparities in health outcomes. Similarly, I love sociology, but I am really interested in the health of marginalized communities, particularly African American communities.

That combination of interests inspired me to explore public health. I was exposed to different research training programs like the McNair Scholars Program. I got the opportunity to participate in a research project that looked at anthropology, sociology, and health outcomes amongst Caribbean people and then that just sparked my passion for bringing my background in sociology to public health.

Keilah Jacques, MSW: Very similarly, I was also a McNair Scholar, and my arrival at public health came from an alternate route. I’m a public health social worker. My training in social work means that my orientation to practice was undergirded by anti-oppression and social justice. The foundations of social work education are very much stemmed in understanding power dynamics and understanding systems, not just for the philosophical enlightenment, but really because as a practitioner if you don’t work from an orientation towards social justice, you could literally do harm – psychological, emotional, physical harm – to people.

I came to public health because I was really interested, much like Dr. Parker, in finding strategies to address needs of my community. I realized I had the privilege and advantage of being educated through a particular lens and that if I went back to academia, I would have the opportunity to bring social justice frameworks to public health teaching and learning.

You’ve been working together to develop your new course for two years. What’s most meaningful to you about seeing the project come to fruition?

KJ: We recognized something was missing. Our students, especially in HBS, have been advocating for social justice in both the classroom and in their skillset development for their practice. They’ve been asking for a course. What’s so exciting is that we get to bring our learned experience and our practice experience to this space to facilitate that skill development for students, both in theory and in practice because it’s a service-learning course. There’s an additional enhancement because they get to take what they learned and apply it alongside a community-based organization who has identified a need.

What sets Social Justice: Policy, Research, and Practice apart from other social justice courses at JHSPH and beyond?

KJ: Lots of institutions do experiential learning, but not many public health ones. It’s very possible to work in communities and to do experiential learning and to be harmful because you assume that as an institution of learners, you have an expertise that the community doesn’t.

What makes our course social justice-oriented is these critical pedagogy components of acknowledging history, of acknowledging power and privilege, of examining identify – all of which are a part of this particular class, on top of the theories, the frameworks, and the practice.

As part of the course, students will be matched with a community-based organization to complete a service-learning project. How has the pandemic changed the class’s approach to service-learning partnerships?

KJ: The main challenge has been thinking about how to build an intentional understanding of what community needs are in a virtual way. For this course, we’re really focusing on policy and procedural projects that can be done at a distance, things like social media campaigns, best practice research, data analysis, and strategy and implementation planning.

We worked with our community partners to identify projects. During the class, those community-based organizations will have a chance to talk about their organizations and the projects they would place the student groups with.

Amidst our COVID reality, we are having to rethink place. That presents an opportunity for us to reach a larger group of Baltimore-based organizations that we may not have been able to work with before, given transportation and other challenges. Working virtually allows us to have more presence across the city and serve more organizations and also do so in innovative ways.

LP: Students will have a variety of fascinating projects and community partners to engage with, from historical analyses to engaging people with medical assistance. There’s something for everyone and every skillset.

Who knows how these relationships could impact the students? We really want to encourage partnerships. These projects could end up inspiring someone’s career. The opportunity could turn into a thesis or dissertation; it could be a partnership that continues far beyond the class.

In addition to service-learning, another unique element of the course is its social media component. Students will be encouraged to take part in Twitter chats! Would you elaborate on the social media aspect of the class and its significance in the context of social justice work?

LP: I love Twitter because I think that it’s a great way for public health folks to stay informed. When you think about social justice, social media is a great way to gather information and to disperse information in real time. We don’t have to wait to publish a journal article twelve months later. We can do something now. That now-ness can really bring about change and encourage change.

In terms of the course, we were talking about Twitter and the usefulness of it, and we wanted to put it into practice. Students will have an opportunity to participate in Twitter chats. There are other activities students can participate in without a Twitter account, but they’ll get the full benefit of the course if they create an account. Throughout the course, we’re going to have several Twitter chats with some very prominent scholars and take the conversations that we’re having in class online.

We’re also reaching out the community. It’s a privilege to be educated at Hopkins. It’s a privilege to be able to have this information. We’re going to share the information that we have with a worldwide community and use Twitter to enhance community building.

KJ: The history of organizing has looked to students and non-traditional forms of communication. It was not safe to put things in the newspaper to rally people. You used word-of-mouth and your network to rally people to action. When we look at the work of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker around student organizing, it was built around word-of-mouth and town meetings. We’re using a modern form of those organizing tools to facilitate an understanding of social justice strategy.

One of the things students will learn about in this course is liberation. My personal definition is being the fullest expression of one’s self uninterrupted. How do you do that if you’re inside an exclusive space like an institution of higher education? When we’re thinking about leveling out power structures, one of the ways we’re teaching students to practice that is breaking down barriers. Using Twitter gives us another platform for sharing education and widening the conversation to communities who are not present. By doing what COVID has restricted us to do, and we’re innovating into the space of learning for the future.

What aspect of the course excites your most?

LP: This is the course I would love to have taken as a graduate student. Now, I have had a hand in co-developing it. To bring voices to light that are not as mainstream, at this time of bringing about change and being really intentional about including all types of voices at the table, it just makes me excited!

The class is a 'thought-baby' for me. We’ve grown this baby into a full adult, and it’s just awesome that the community is welcoming the baby. I’m excited to share the baby and hope that people nurture it into their own practices.

KJ: This is not just the course I would like to have taken, but the course that I came back to academia to make possible. I came back to academia from public health practice because I recognized that there was a gap in the learning, and now I have the privilege of co-developing a course to address that gap. Is it going to reach everybody, every practitioner, every student? No, but it’s a start. And based on the response that we’ve already had from folks and from our leadership, it’s an indication of what’s possible.

This interview has been edited and compressed.