Last February just before COVID changed life as we knew it, you were named one of 35 outstanding women in higher ed by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education for your work in the realm of critically engaged civic learning. Can you talk about what critically engaged civic learning means?
Critically Engaged Civic Learning (CECL) is a framework for student learning and social change that was developed by the Salem State University’s Center of Civic Engagement in collaboration with some of our community partners. Civic engagement in academia has traditionally been a top down model, with university experts at the top assuming they have the most resources and they know best. CECL turns this approach around. Unlike the traditional service-learning model that puts the student at the center of the work and engages community partners around them, CECL puts social change at the center. Students, faculty and community engagement professionals, community members and community organizations work together in a more equitable way to examine the root causes of social justice issues and try to affect change. CECL marries what’s happening in the community with what’s happening in the classroom, creating a deeper and more holistic approach to civic engagement and social change.
How does civic engagement influence your teaching?
My teaching is centered on student learning, equity and social change, which means all my classes include aspects of civic learning and engagement. In my public sociology course, for example, students typically engage in project-based learning. One semester we partnered with third-graders at the Horace Mann Laboratory School to examine food justice issues in Salem. We used an approach called “photovoice,” which entailed using photography to both research and present the issues at hand. The project culminated in a photo exhibition that more than a dozen community leaders and partner organizations attended, and it even inspired Salem’s municipal leaders to take a closer look at what’s happening in Salem’s food landscape. While students didn’t solve the problem of food insecurity, by partnering with the community they helped bring awareness to the issue and build on the work being done to address it.
In addition to teaching at Salem State you also are a member of City of Salem’s Board of Health. When did you join the Board, and what drew you to want to serve on it?
I joined the Board of Health in 2019 to complete the term of a member that had to step down early due to a job change. I was appointed to a full three-year term in 2020. I’m lucky to serve on a hardworking, all-volunteer Board that includes people who work in medicine, healthcare administration, and the law.
One of my teaching and research areas is medical sociology, a subfield that focuses on the social determinants of health and health equity. The social determinants of health are the social forces like socioeconomic status, race, gender, education, housing, etc. that affect people’s health outcomes. I teach my students that health is about more than just diet and exercise, and conditions like chronic stress and trauma can literally change how a body functions. For example, a wealthy person and a working-class person could have the same health behaviors but because of their different social positions the wealthier person is likely to live a decade longer than the working-class person. People in more privileged positions have the economic, physical, social, and emotional resources to cope with stress and trauma whereas people in more marginalized positions have fewer resources to manage these things. This inequality, which is particularly pronounced in communities of color, has serious implications for both population health and social justice. I bring this perspective to the Board of Health by ensuring all our decisions are made through the lens of equity.
What are the challenges of serving on the Board during a pandemic?
The hardest thing about serving during the COVID-19 pandemic is making public health decisions where no one really wins. One issue we’re facing right now is whether to place additional restrictions on indoor dining, gyms, museums, etc. to help decrease the increasing rates of COVID-19 in Salem. Contact tracing data suggests these spaces are relatively safe and that most COVID clusters are occurring in households, but someone in that household brought the virus in from somewhere, and our contract tracing efforts simply aren’t sufficient to render that data useful. Nobody wants to hurt small businesses, especially those of us who live in this community, but we also don’t want people to get sick and die. I also see this as a social justice issue given how many frontline and essential workers are working-class, women, and/or people of color – some of the most vulnerable members of our community. It’s also important to understand that the Board doesn’t make economic policy. This is where we need strong leadership at city, state, and federal levels so our small businesses will survive this pandemic.
What advice would you give to students wanting to make a difference in their communities during this time of social distancing?
As difficult as the past several months have been, there have been some good things that have come out of the pandemic. One thing is that all city meetings are now on Zoom. This makes it easier for everyone to participate. Students should take advantage of these more accessible public meetings to learn what’s going on in their communities and get involved.
I would also encourage students to pay attention to what their local organizations are doing during this time and see how students can be a part of their work. The Salem Together webpage provides tons of resources to help people weather the pandemic, but it also includes information about how people can volunteer to deliver meals, shop for those who can’t leave their homes, write letter to seniors, etc. These types of activities may seem small, but they can make a big difference in people’s lives.