How Racism Is Embodied: A New Health Advocacy Curriculum

Poverty & Race, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

How Racism Is Embodied: A New Health Advocacy Curriculum


I really already knew that racism was bad but I didn 't know it could affect health or that is has affected how babies are when they are born.

Quote from a 7th grader from Seattle Girls School, Seattle, Washington

While the unfortunate realities of racial health inequities in the U.S. are indisputable, the mechanisms by which such inequities occur are hotly debated. However, there is now substantial evidence that racism and discrimination produce health inequities through socially-induced biological changes in utero and throughout the life course. Unfortunately, actions towards eliminating racial health inequities are hindered by popularly held explanations for racial health differences, such as intrinsic genetic differences and poor health behaviors, despite the lack of sufficient scientific evidence to support them. Furthermore, the current focus of health education on individualized medical treatment and an absence of teaching models for a societal/systematic understanding of health are barriers to teaching health advocacy at the broader community or societal level.

Just Health Action (JHA) is a nonprofit organization (www.justhealth action.org) based in Seattle, Washington, that has developed unique curricula to teach the social determinants of health (SDOH) as a means to address the overarching factors that produce health equity. Social determinants include, but are not limited to, income, early life experiences, education, food security, employment, health care, social cohesion and political empowerment. Even more broadly, racism, classism and sexism -identified as the social determinants of equity - drive inequities in the SDOH. These determinants are sometimes referred to as the "causes of the causes" because they are an "upstream" source of "downstream" individual behaviors and biological traits. Understanding these determinants is essential for taking decisive action to improve health.

JHA has been working since 2004 to develop and teach students to understand the SDOH as well as the skills to take action on root causes of poor health both for individuals and populations. JHA's pedagogy is interactive and encourages critical analysis and reflection, similar to empowerment education or education for "critical consciousness" advocated by Paulo Freire.

JHA believes that eliminating racial health inequities also requires a new empowerment approach that focuses on teaching evidence-based scientific concepts alongside strategies to inspire students towards collective action to reduce racism. Thanks to funding from PRRAC, JHA developed a new racism and health curriculum that was piloted at Seattle Girls School (SGS) in Spring, 2010. SGS is a private middle school located in a historically redlined district of Seattle that has made a firm commitment to ensuring a socio-economically and culturally diverse academic community. It shows through its student body: Over 40% of the girls self- report as students of color and at least 30% of the students receive needbased financial aid.

JHA worked with three post-baccalaureate interns to develop curriculum and then taught six lessons (totaling seven hours) at SGS over a twoweek period. The six lesson titles were: 1. Three levels of racism; 2. …

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