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UNT researchers from across disciplines are providing guidance on improving the health and quality of lives of marginalized populations.
Text by: JESSICA DELEÓN
This year, protesters filled the streets of America, marching against racial inequalities. But others are fighting racism by gathering data and shaping policy.
Through their research, more than 40 UNT faculty members are addressing inequities in how people in Texas live, work, learn and interact socially — factors that the Centers for Disease Control cite as contributions to overall health considerations and outcomes.
UNT’s Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society (CREEHS) was initiated by Chandra Carey, associate academic dean for UNT’s College of Health and Public Service and associate professor of rehabilitation and health services, and Tony Carey, associate professor of political science.
Through federal- and state-funded grants, faculty are researching the educational, economic, environmental and social determinants of health to enhance the quality of life for underserved populations across Texas. UNT will seek additional funding from the Texas Legislature to help support the center that will provide a platform, such as policy reports, in creating legislation.
“CREEHS is committed to seeking solutions to stimulate movement toward health equity,” Chandra Carey says. “Our mission is to explore racial and ethnic equity, examining the causes of these health care gaps, evaluating social determinants of health, uncovering their broader economic and social consequences across the state of Texas, and providing research to uncover best practices and policy prescriptions for remedying these issues.”
It couldn’t be timelier. The coronavirus pandemic has affected people of color more than whites. In the U.S., Blacks are dying at 3.7 times the rate of whites. Indigenous people are dying at 3.5 times the rate and Latinos at 2.5 times the rate, according to the APM Research Lab. Other health disparities exist. Black women are more likely to die while giving birth at three times the rate of white women. Black women also will die from breast cancer at a 40% higher rate than that of their white counterparts.
“We like to think that economics will solve these problems,” Tony Carey says. “When in reality, you still have these racial and ethnic disparities that play a role. While in some cases accounting for class may reduce the impact of race on health outcomes, it very rarely eliminates it. Race or ethnicity tends to influence class position in the U.S., but not the other way around. Consequently, the emerging consensus is that it is best to consider the interactive relationship between race and class disparities when examining health care outcomes.”
Faculty members in the center are from a wide range of fields — anthropology and art history to business and journalism. And they’re tackling subjects from unique perspectives. Take mental health — Angie Cartwright, associate professor of counseling and higher education, is studying how it effects underserved communities, while Martinque “Marti” Jones, assistant professor of psychology, examines wellness and counseling interventions relevant to Black women.
“We’re approaching it from a variety of different angles,” Tony Carey says, “including how to convince policymakers to do the things that need to be done.”
The center also brings opportunities for collaboration. Sarah Evans, assistant professor of information science, talked with Joanna Davis-McElligatt, assistant professor of English, about graphic medicine, which explains health concepts through graphic novels and comics and can be used as a health literacy tool.
“It’s exciting to work across disciplines,” Evans says. “Instead of being in my own bubble of thinking about what libraries can do for our own community.”
Evans’ specialty is libraries, which also can play a crucial role in distributing health information to patrons, especially to those in rural areas who may not have strong internet connectivity or lack devices or infrastructure to support technology. During the pandemic, some libraries have circulated devices and others have kept their Wi-Fi signal on so people can access it from the parking lot. Some use bookmobiles to broadcast Wi-Fi.
Libraries can be used to help patrons fill out unemployment forms. There’s even a health literacy movement in which libraries offer programs about growing food.
“Libraries are friendly, neutral open spaces where a lot of people can come to,” Evans says. “And can be an access point for education and communication like they always have been.”
Tony Carey adds that rural areas, even with their mostly white populations, face disparities because state funding tends to go toward urban spaces and larger populations.
“Rural spaces have to contend with less economic resources to address health concerns and often more chronic health issues due to lack of access,” he says. “Those factors alone make rural spaces equally important in the center’s focus."
Cities face unique issues regarding inequities. For example, Black residents have been leaving the city of Chicago in high numbers since 1990.
William Scarborough, assistant professor of sociology, was part of a team at the University of Illinois at Chicago that tried to figure out why. He found Black and Latinx neighborhoods received fewer resources than majority white neighborhoods — a legacy of residential redlining in which government and businesses segregated non-white residents for certain services. But discrimination continues in other forms, such as housing and barriers to credit. Black residents in Chicago were paid over 20% less in hourly wages than white residents in 2016, after accounting for factors such as education, age, family attributes, gender and part-time/full-time status. The unemployment rate for Black residents in Chicago was over five times as large as for white residents.
The team’s report, “The State of Racial Justice in Chicago Project,” was made publicly accessible and sent to activist groups. Rep. Bobby Rush, who represents part of Chicago, cited it on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Scarborough’s most recent study on the effects of women’s personal and professional roles during the pandemic was featured in The New York Times. COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have further thrust health disparities into the spotlight.
“That’s why we, in academia, play such an important role,” he says. “We provide the evidence to help make change.”
And CREEHS could become a leader in creating solutions — as well as provide opportunities to the next generation of researchers.
“It signals to the students on campus that these are our values, and it provides a place where people can seek mentorship and guidance,” Tony Carey says, “Not only around these issues, but also in other areas of their life and career.”
While UNT has always been on the cutting edge of innovation, CREEHS is working to bolster its reputation even more both in the state and across the nation.
“UNT is perfectly poised to help achieve equity in Texas,” Chandra Carey says, “And to be a model for institutions across the nation.”