The University of Memphis has established an initiative to fight systemic racism and promote social justice. Led by Dr. Karen Weddle-West, vice president of Student Academic Success/director of Diversity Initiatives, Daphene R. McFerren, executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Linda G. Hall, associate dean of Multicultural Affairs, the Eradicating Racism & Social Change Initiative was created in response to the national outcry over the death of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police and protest for racial equality around the world.
Providing guidance, infrastructure and oversight of this initiative, Dr. Weddle-West, McFerren and Hall created 14 focus areas and workgroups that are co-led by a carefully selected, diverse group of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community and corporate leaders. Dr. Lin Zhan, LCON dean, co-leads the Health Disparities and Academic Achievement workgroup with Dr. Jebose Okwumabua, professor in the College of Health Sciences.
The goal of the workgroup is to (a) develop a strategic plan of action to assess relationships among health disparities, systemic racism and academic achievement; (b) develop recommendations for implementing positive change; and (c) recommend research initiatives focused on these areas.
“We hope to become a leader in our efforts to combat systemic racism and promote social justice in healthcare for people of color in our communities. We are uniquely positioned in a city such as Memphis to be part of the conversation and efforts to reach a solution to achieving health equity for all,” said Dean Zhan.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has shined a light on the health disparities among people of color, showing inequalities that disproportionately and adversely impact low-income and ethnic minority communities. Systemic racism has been identified as a root cause of inequalities in health, resulting in higher rates of morbidity and mortality among people of color.
Anecdotal data reveal that educational, physiological and mental health outcomes of college students are adversely impacted by health disparities emanating from systemic racism. More than 50 percent of UofM students come from low-income families and many are first generation college students.
To address student need during COVID-19, the UofM created food pantries, clothes closets and emergency loans to help students pay utility bills or provide for other basic needs. As the pandemic continued, the University saw an increase in the number of students requiring support, including mental health services.
In addition to Dean Zhan, Dr. Eric Bailey, assistant dean for Nursing Students; Dr. Tasma Robertson, clinical assistant professor; and Asia Monique Cross, LCON student, are participating in the workgroup.