SLU social justice advocates find unique ways of leveraging their research to make the world a better place.
Throughout history, art has served as an agent for social change. Dr. Amber Johnson (A&S ’01, Grad A&S ’03) literally drives the point home with the Justice Fleet, a network of trucks and mobile exhibits filled with art supplies, Legos, toys and ball pits. Johnson believes art and dialogue can help individuals heal from the wounds of injustice.
“Anything looked at as fun makes difficult conversations easier,” said Johnson, who uses they/them pronouns. The associate professor of communication and their team, often comprised of SLU students, venture into St. Louis neighborhoods to engage community members in discussions about social justice, empathy, and implicit and explicit bias.
“Once you’re aware of the impact social injustice has on certain people, communities and institutions, it’s hard to sit and do nothing,” said Johnson, whose research interests include identity, social justice, healing justice and humanizing equity. “Healing from trauma associated with oppression is just as important as crafting policies that combat oppression. We talk about equity all the time, but we don’t talk about healing enough. Those things must happen at the same time.”
The Justice Fleet’s exhibitions include modules on radical forgiveness, a process that encourages repairing rather than reliving the wounds of social justice; radical imagination, a playful way to help participants imagine a more just and equitable future; and transfuturism, interviews and portraits to bring awareness to Black, transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Johnson received two grants in 2020 to support the fleet. An award from the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis is keeping the Justice Fleet safe during the coronavirus pandemic by providing funds to purchase masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes for participants and volunteers and helping develop alternative ways of engaging with the hands-on activities. A grant from the Missouri Humanities Council will allow the fleet to travel to homeless shelters, transitional youth housing and senior living facilities this year.
Johnson’s endeavors fall under the umbrella of SLU’s new Institute for Healing Justice and Equity (IHJE), an interdisciplinary group of scholars, healing practitioners and community organizers using research, community engagement, advocacy and policy change to eliminate disparities caused by systemic oppression. The founders believe the IHJE has the potential to establish SLU as a national epicenter of healing justice, equity in policy and community research ethics.
Like Johnson, Dr. Kira Hudson Banks, associate professor of psychology and another co-founder of the institute, contends that racial equity and justice must include efforts to help people heal from the trauma of oppression. Her research team is working to understand the psychological experience of those who have been oppressed, as well as developing interventions to foster resilience.
“The negative messages individuals receive about their race or gender can damage their sense of self,” she said. “For example, how does a woman navigate the world and remain resilient when she hears that women don’t have a natural proclivity for science or should stick with more traditional roles?”
Banks’ research demonstrates a group-based intervention developed by her team is decreasing the negative mental health implications and increasing the protective factors in Black women who are exposed to racial and gender oppression. Banks said upcoming research will focus on individual intervention strategies.
Ruqaiijah Yearby, a professor of law, and Dr. Keon Gilbert, associate professor of behavioral science and health education, also are co-founders of the institute. They are working with other SLU researchers, who are faculty affiliates of the institute, to explore the effectiveness of processes implemented by city and county governments nationwide to achieve racial equity.
“We’re interested in whether the processes result in community engagement and policy changes that improve racial equity in education, health care, employment and housing,” said Yearby, co-principal investigator on the project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We want to know whether these changes are effective and whether they have unintended consequences.”
Paid sick leave laws are one of the project’s focal points.
“You can imagine the impact policy can have on some employees,” she said. “If you don’t earn paid sick leave and you’re making minimum wage, you’re more likely to come into work sick. We’re learning from the COVID-19 crisis that this has significant consequences.”
In November, the Missouri Foundation for Health awarded IHJE researchers a grant to study the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations, particularly in the St. Louis metropolitan area and the Missouri bootheel. Gilbert said researchers will explore the impact the virus is having on individuals, how the virus is altering support structures and what policy changes might address disparities.
A Little Off the Top
Gilbert was selected as co-investigator of the project because he has spent more than a decade exploring racism as a determinant of health care, specifically related to Black boys and men.
“Black boys and Black men often feel excluded or pushed out of systems of care, whether it’s health care or social services,” he said. “As a result, they don’t prioritize their health, which, of course, has an impact on other aspects of their lives — jobs, family, church, recreation.”
Gilbert’s expertise is taking his research findings and leveraging them through community engagement to create interventions and identify sources of resilience. Before joining SLU, Gilbert was a W.K. Kellogg post-doctoral researcher working with communities in North Carolina where he, other researchers and students harnessed supports found in churches and schools to promote healthier behaviors in Black males.
When he arrived at SLU, Gilbert was invited to join the local chapter of the national 100 Black Men of America Inc. With the organization, Gilbert co-coordinates health screenings in north city and north county barbershops where he, SLU nursing faculty, and SLU nursing and public health students screen patrons for high blood pressure, promote wellness and conduct surveys about social and behavioral influences on health that matter for these communities. A SLU nutrition and dietetics faculty member brings food samples and offers healthy eating suggestions.
“One of the cool things about the project is that I’ve been able to integrate opportunities to teach and demonstrate community engagement into some of my courses,” Gilbert said. “It helps students understand community settings and be creative in how they can deliver public health initiatives in comfortable and natural settings, such as barbershops.”
Gilbert also works with students to understand how to help communities evaluate their efforts to eradicate disparities.
“Most communities don’t have the resources to properly evaluate their projects and generate evidence to document success, but we do,” he said. “We can provide the assistance that allows communities to compete more effectively for much-needed resources.”
Startup funding for the IHJE came through the University’s Big Ideas competition, a multi-year process launched two years ago to identify and invest in collaborative projects designed to solidify SLU’s reputation as a leader in research, training and innovation.
— By Marie Dilg
Universitas, the award-winning alumni magazine of Saint Louis University, is distributed to SLU alumni, parents and benefactors around the world. The magazine includes campus news, feature stories, alumni profiles and class notes, and has a circulation of 123,700.