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The Race &… Conference showed how Pitt is addressing disparities

  • Health and Wellness
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

At the Sept. 29 Race &… Conference, John Wallace, vice provost for faculty diversity and development at the University of Pittsburgh, reflected on nationwide societal changes since the death of George Floyd sparked a reckoning with systemic racial inequity three years ago.

Pointing to trends such as hiring data from LinkedIn showing a spike in chief diversity officer positions in 2021, then a drop-off in 2022, Wallace concluded that progress toward racial equity has largely stalled in some parts of the country.

But not at Pitt.

Wallace spearheads the Race and Social Determinants of Equity, Health, and Well-being Cluster Hire and Retention Initiative, an effort from the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences.

“Even though race may have fallen off the radar at other places, I’m proud to say that here at the University of Pittsburgh, race still matters,” Wallace said. “We still do the work.”

That work continues as more than 250 people filled Alumni Hall for the second annual Race &… Conference, where social justice advocates, researchers, artists and students celebrated and showcased their work addressing racial health disparities and racial equity. The conference also included rapid talks, poster presentations, a documentary screening and networking opportunities.

It was the first Race &… Conference for Kyaien O. Conner, the new director for the Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) at the School of Social Work.

“The University of Pittsburgh is really in a position to be at the epicenter of race-based research in the country,” Conner said in her remarks to the crowd. “And that’s going to happen because of the people that are in this room right now.”

Her introduction energized attendees as she encouraged them to clap and sway to a traditional West African welcoming song and dance, accompanied by a drum performance by Balafon, a West African dance and drum ensemble.

Conner, who officially joined Pitt at the beginning of July, said the song was in the spirit of the conference’s theme of collaboration and interdisciplinary work. Her professional background is cross-institutional, reflecting her roles as a social worker, health equity researcher, social justice advocate and professional West African dancer.

A crucial component to healthy collaboration, Conner noted, is for people to think about the unique strengths they bring to the team. One example she gave is artistic strengths that require more vulnerability: Effective internal collaboration requires people to bring their full, authentic selves to the table while recognizing their strengths, weaknesses, biases and assumptions.

“We have to begin to work together and lift each other up and support one another,” Conner said. “We’re going to face resistance along this path. Not everyone understands how important the work is that we’re doing.”

Ramping up diverse hiring

Race &… has now ushered in more than 50 full-time faculty to the Pitt community. And it’s just getting started.

Ashley Hill is among the faculty in the larger Race &… Initiative, which has expanded from a 2020 cluster hire to include a variety of programs such as lecture series, social events, research collaborations and new cluster hire initiatives.

[Read more: A Pitt hiring initiative aims to reduce racial disparities in the region]

Hill, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, became a full-time faculty member at the school through the program’s cluster hire initiative in the spring 2021 semester, but she began her career at Pitt and UPMC as a postdoctoral scholar in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine.

Her research focuses on sexual and reproductive health, particularly in finding more effective ways to educate and engage young people in conversations about these topics.

Hill said it was Pitt’s passionate faculty, strong focus on community engagement and successful junior faculty of color that made her decide to stay with the University across several stages of her career.

“I think that was something that was very exciting for me, particularly as a person who doesn't really have specific ties here — really seeing that there was an opportunity for me to grow, not only my work but also that there were people who wanted to see me be able to advance myself in all aspects of my life and really wanted to support that.”

Teaming up for better health

A core part of this initiative is the Race &… Research Collaboratories, where interdisciplinary groups of Pitt faculty and community members collaborate on research projects themed around specific topics, including:

“All the collaboratories are focused on interdisciplinary work — my theory being that there's already brilliant folks at Pitt, but so often, people are not even aware of each other and that the real problems that we face are not primarily ones that can be solved by a single discipline,” Wallace said.

Spurred by a 2019 report issued by Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission, Hill and 12 other members of the Race &… Health Collaboratory examine challenges to maternal health for Black women. Among other findings, the report found Black women in Pittsburgh are more likely to die during pregnancy than those in other U.S. cities.

Wallace added, pointing to a 2020 study from the World Economic Forum, that this collaboratory also shines a light on a lesser-known phenomenon — how even Black women with higher education have higher rates of maternal health issues than women of other races.

“The women with the highest infant mortality are the most highly educated,” Wallace said. “We’re explicitly looking at Black PhDs, MDs even, and talking to them about the birth experience. And it’s true that a number of them have had a variety of challenges and interactions with doctors and so forth.”

During the September conference, this research was explored during a screening of “Mama Docs: The Birthing Stories of Highly Educated Black Women.” The documentary was followed by a panel discussion in which panelists shared personal experiences with difficult births to show the challenges Black women face in health care, regardless of socioeconomic status.

[From Pitt Med magazine: Addressing maternal mortality]

The cluster hire initiative and its social events have allowed Hill to work with a group of like-minded, “very cool, down-to-earth” people in her age group, she said.

“I think a lot of us really have grown a fondness for each other personally and are really excited to be able to continue to connect, especially as the weather gets better,” said Hill.

Her most frequent collaborator is another faculty member hired as part of the initiative, Martina Anto-Ocrah, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine. Anto-Ocrah is also among the faculty in the Race &… Health Collaboratory, which is led by Tiffany Gary Webb, the special assistant to the provost for race and the social determinants of equity, health and well-being and a professor of public health.

Hill and Anto-Ocrah have also formed their own collaboration, leading a project to examine how fathers have been engaged across the pregnancy, birthing and postpartum periods and to explore avenues for improving maternal and child health outcomes for Black women. As a part of this collaboration, the two are working with the local organization Healthy Start’s fatherhood initiative.

“The collaboration, specifically in this way, has really helped us develop this new line of work in a new area that I think a lot of people are very interested in, particularly from the community standpoint,” Hill said.

Upcoming Race &… Events

Another large component of the Race &... Initiative is its social events and gatherings, which introduce new cluster hire faculty and their research to the Pitt community. Future lectures include:

Nov. 9: The Impact of Federal Housing Policies on Racial Inequality: The Case of the Federal Housing Administration, Omer Ali, assistant professor, Department of Economics

Nov. 14: Psychosocial Rehabilitation in Low Resource Settings, Ikenna Ebuenyi, assistant professor, Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology

Jan. 18: Anti-Muslim Discrimination and the Limits to Equality in Europe, Aala Abdelgadir, assistant professor, Department of Political Science

Jan. 25: Improving the Health of Mothers and Birthing People Through Interconception and 4th Trimester Care, Stacy Bartlett, assistant professor, Department of Family Medicine

March 5: Synuclein Regulates Synaptic Vesicle Recycling, Karina Vargas, assistant professor, Department of Cell Biology

March 21: Photographic Camera Inventions and the Technologies of Being: A Black Rhetorical Critique, Adedoyin Ogunfeyimi, assistant professor, Department of English


— Donovan Harrell, photography by Johnathan Wright