How Will They Know You Were in the Room? The Higher Calling of Health Equity Research

During the New Connections’ 10th Annual Symposium (June 9-10, 2016), Chairperson Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, shared the importance of getting “in the room.” In academia, this can mean having a voice in decision-making – from leading a committee to being tenured to chairing a conference. At times, these rooms can be hostile … especially if you’re an underrepresented and/or first-generation scholar.

Kumanyika, professor emerita of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania and research professor of community health and prevention at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, warned that “people will question how you got into the room. Sometimes, your category is what gets you through the door — we don’t deny that. New Connections is unapologetic about extending special privileges to underrepresented scholars because of the richness they bring to the academic enterprise.”

Similarly, during a Thursday plenary session, Rosita López, PhD, shared her experiences in some of these hostile rooms. Being a Latina in a majority White environment (specifically, as professor emerita of educational administration and leadership at Northern Illinois University), López has met a good number of doubters, or “dream-busters,” as she calls them.

But neither she nor Kumanyika focused on these negative experiences; instead, both focused on the change they wanted to bring about and the importance of paying it forward. It was a theme that ran constant throughout the Symposium.

“No matter how you got into the room,” Kumanyika told her audience of underrepresented scholars, “always be asking yourself how people will know you were there. You have been singled out for the cause of equity. How will the resulting findings, reports, or frameworks indicate your presence?”

Just some of the examples she gave of how to do this included:

  • When you’re looking at a bar graph of health outcomes, Black individuals are almost always on the wrong side of the bar graph. When a culturally competent researcher is in the room, s/he should pay attention not just to the findings, but how those findings are presented. Presentation of research can either reinforce the possibility of change, or a sense of intractability.
  • It is always easier to develop problem-oriented research versus solution-oriented research. Instead of looking at causes of obesity, for example, Kumanyika challenged the audience to look at causes of health within a community, and work from there.
  • Make sure any piece of research you had a part in addresses the tough questions: What implications does this have for eliminating health disparities? How does it address privilege? What direct relevance does it have to policy and practices? If an advocate picked this up, would s/he find action steps to act upon?

Next time you find yourself in a room, whether you’re an early scholar or a tenured professor, start by questioning not how you got there, but how the place will be differentbecause you were there.