Racism isn’t rhetoric. It’s a public health crisis.

Photo: Guests at the 2020 Minority Health Conference attended a powerful keynote lecture from LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.

The United States is experiencing a collision of public health emergencies. As COVID-19 spread and the country grappled with a reckoning on systemic racism and violence, the health inequities that lead to poorer outcomes for Black Americans have become more glaring and more deadly.

Through more than 80 years of public health education and research at UNC, the Gillings community is reminded that the mission to advance health equity can save lives. Black lives matter. Work at the Gillings School requires intention and introspection, acknowledging the need to incorporate anti-racism into all facets of scholarship, policy and community action.

“The events of 2020 helped expose that racism, not race, is the root cause of multiple health inequities,” said Kauline Cipriani, PhD, associate dean for inclusive excellence and associate professor in the Public Health Leadership Program. “Inclusive excellence at Gillings is critical now, more than ever, if we are to adequately prepare the next generation of public health practitioners and researchers to achieve our mission of reducing health inequities in North Carolina and globally.”

Photo: The events of 2020 have exposed the need for critical and urgent solutions to systemic racism.

Rising to the challenge

In response to the collision of crises in 2020, the inclusive excellence team, led by Cipriani, launched the Emergency Preparedness, Ethics and Equity webinar series, which explores social inequities unearthed by the pandemic and our response to it. The series has covered topics such as protection for incarcerated persons, elevating and recentering LGBTQ+ health, and how faith leaders are sustaining community.

Leadership at the Gillings School is committed to full implementation of the Inclusive Excellence Action Plan, and advances have been made in each of six strategic focus areas. Faculty, staff and students have participated in trainings on anti-racism and creating inclusive environments in academic spaces. For the second year in a row, efforts in this area were recognized with receipt of the Health Professions Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award.

Raising awareness

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Minority Student Caucus (MSC), which advocates for students of color in the Gillings School and promotes research and programs addressing health concerns that affect people of color. Since 1977, the MSC has led the annual Minority Health Conference, which has addressed topics ranging from community-based research, social determinants of health, systems of power and more.

The 2021 Minority Health Conference was an all-virtual event held on Feb. 25-26. Co-led by health policy and management graduate students Rachel Singley and Shewit Weldense, its theme, “Body and Soul,” explored avenues of health activism that go beyond the scope of politics.

“We wanted to focus on spiritual, mental and emotional health but also on health activism and how that takes many forms,” Singley explained. “This was inspired by the events of the summer following George Floyd’s murder. People are looking for grassroots and ‘boots-on-the-ground’ activists to be our voice more than ever, instead of looking to politicians.”

The conference attracts attendees and speakers from across the country, and this year’s virtual format brought the opportunity to reach an audience on a broader scale. Keynote speakers were Wizdom Powell, PhD, and Sharelle Barber, ScD, MPH.

Reconnecting and reengaging

The Minority Health Conference is a highlight for many, including Gillings School alumni, who often travel from across the country to attend. On the night before the 2020 conference, alumna Stephanie Baker, PhD, Dean Barbara Rimer, DrPH, and Cipriani led a reception to connect with many of these alumni. Called “Reengage,” the event was both a reflection and a recognition that in 80 years of work towards equity at the Gillings School, there is still room for improvement and more work to be done. To that end, Baker and fellow alumna Anita Holmes co-founded the Alumni Inclusive Excellence Committee to further advance goals for inclusiveness and equity at the Gillings School.

Advancing research into health equity

Systemic inequities caused by racism, discrimination and unequal access can deny people the most important elements that contribute to good health and well-being, like quality education, good jobs, decent and affordable housing, safe neighborhoods and environments, clean water, nutritious foods, and adequate healthcare.

A majority of faculty at the Gillings School have published work on health equity. Get to know two who are continuing to contribute to equitable health outcomes, both in research and in practice.

Photo: During the Reengage event, alumni and leaders came together to develop strategies to grow a more equitable Gillings community.


Carmen Samuel-Hodge, PhD, RD

Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition

Dana Rice, DrPH

Assistant Professor, Public Health Leadership Program; Assistant Dean for Master’s Degree Programs