Julia Donnelly sitting in front of laptop with Pitt CEC banner in background
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Pitt’s Health Justice Scholars focus on equity in public health

  • Health and Wellness
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Graduate School of Public Health

From addressing health disparities in transgender communities to researching links between racism and asthma, the Health Justice Scholars program challenges students to approach their work with a focus on equity.

Dara Mendez, director of Pitt’s Center for Health Equity, said students were the inspiration behind starting the program. “They wanted to build community and work with other like-minded people who are doing similar work,” she said.

Now in its second year, the year-long program for public health students offers support and two to four dedicated hours of time each week to help build healthier, more just communities. Scholars also get professional development, training and networking opportunities with their peers and Center for Health Equity affiliated faculty and experts.

“Change starts small,” said Julia Donnelly (GSPH ’21), who was part of the first cohort and who worked with formerly incarcerated people. “We need to approach health justice through the lens of cooperation and teamwork.”

Donnelly, who previously worked in a cancer research lab, entered Pitt’s Master of Public Health program because she was interested in the connection between social factors and the onset of chronic diseases.

“What I’ve learned about the difference between public health and biology is that in biological research, we can throw an intervention at a cell and we generally have an idea of how it’s going to respond, and what we don't know is based on our knowledge around the systems within the body,” she said. “Whereas in public health, we can know a lot about how things work and effective interventions, but the biggest challenge is building the willpower to implement those interventions.”

Equity focused classes during grad school inspired Donnelly to study incarcerated and reentry populations, and her time as a Health Justice Scholar helped her make connections in her field. Her mentor in the Health Justice Scholars program was Richard Garland, director of Reimagine Reentry, a community initiative that provides recently incarcerated people coaching, workforce development, family reunification education and housing assistance.

“She's a listener and a learner,” said Garland. “She has a heart that is willing to learn,” he said.

During her tenure as a health justice scholar, Donnelly provided administrative support to Reimagine Reentry, and since completing her degree, is employed by the organization.

She said working with Reminage Reentry is an opportunity to apply what she learned in the Health Justice Scholar program. “I was very aware of my privilege, as a highly educated younger white woman, moving into a space for people who have societally been excluded, both before incarceration and after incarceration,” she said.  “My key concern when entering the Health Justice Scholars Program was how do I decentralize myself in a way that enables me to use my skill set, in a way that prioritizes the community's needs desires.”

See all of the Health Justice Scholars projects.


— Nichole Faina