Why Supporting Future Scholars From Diverse Backgrounds Matters for Health Equity
Blog Post May-11-2023 |
Research is stronger, more accurate, actionable, and equitable when people with varied perspectives and lived experiences design and conduct it. That's why we believe in increasing representation in research and promoting greater equity and inclusion in the field.
We all want to believe that academic environments exist where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to do their best work and advance their careers—no matter their race, ethnicity, lived experience, or background. But as the nonlinear path from my college studies in nutrition and biology to a career in philanthropy revealed, this isn’t always the case. It’s why I’m personally committed to changing this reality for others.
Always focused on the intersection of public health and social justice, I moved from student to advisor, faculty, committee participant, and administrator working in academia. I enjoyed teaching, cultivating relationships to help students set the stage for their success, and participating in an intellectually critical environment to advance health and wellbeing for all. But I also felt, firsthand, the barriers that impede many faculty of color. We need better policies to ensure equity, but we also need better practices.
Case in point: I was recruited to numerous committees and conversations—additional burdens, especially as a junior faculty member—that were not recognized when considered for promotion. I was often tapped to provide a perspective or share my personal experience because people like me were not well-represented in various groups (or in health sciences, generally). While I was happy to make my voice heard, these extra responsibilities occupied time and effort that I could have otherwise devoted toward scholarship or personal development.
Initially, I had little awareness that these additional responsibilities were wearing me down, making me feel ineffective and, often, directly conflicting with my personal life. I struggled with knowing how and when to say “no” when there were so few who shared my experience. Over time, I realized that I lacked the support system I needed to overcome the challenges of underrepresented early career faculty. And I wasn’t alone.
Today, I have the privilege of contributing to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's efforts to fuel change by deeply embedding equity in how we create evidence and share knowledge—and by expanding opportunities for those who participate in the process. And every day, I reflect on my personal journey to help make academia a more inclusive space.
As I experienced, early career researchers with underrepresented perspectives and backgrounds can face barriers to admission and career advancement within universities. When considering promotion or tenure, academia often relies on overly narrow expectations of excellence that do not recognize all the contributions made by scholars from non-majority groups. The field of health science researchers is predominantly White and often connected to large, well-funded institutions. In many instances, researchers with experience, cultural competency, training, background, or skills needed to effectively conduct community-engaged research are simply left out.
By directly acknowledging and addressing these barriers together we can create more durable, more accurate, and more actionable evidence. Diversifying who does research paints a more complete picture of health disparities and potential solutions. It also incorporates the historical and cultural contexts essential to advancing health and racial equity and enriches the information and data decisionmakers use to shape policies, programs, and practices.
What I have loved most about a career in public health is the ever-expanding centering of communities facing structural barriers, bias, or discrimination, and their authentic engagement in developing solutions. True equity in academia—and beyond—starts with fair and equitable admissions, but there is a lot more we can do to open up opportunities for prospective students, students, faculty, and beyond.
With a steadfast focus on achieving equity, academia can evolve not only to make its own policies and practices better, but indeed, to make the world better.
Research shows that students educated with people from different backgrounds improves their thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration, which in turn strengthens our workforce and democracy. Read RWJF’s joint statement in response to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling.>>
About the Author
Sheldon Oliver Watts, program officer, brings his expertise in academic and community settings to his work with the Foundation’s Research, Evaluation, and Learning (REL) unit. Through his work he weds his interest and experience in population/community health and wellbeing with RWJF’s goal of advancing health equity and promoting a Culture of Health.