By Briahnna Brown
Understanding social justice is critical to understanding public health, said Tamara Henry, associate teaching professor of prevention and community health in the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
That is why she goes the extra mile to incorporate social justice topics into her courses, she said, such as student research assignments on the public health contributions that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) have made to the field throughout history or developing a deeper understanding of racial and ethnic disparities across the United States.
For Dr. Henry, it is important to treat social justice as a core component rather than an elective or an afterthought.
"What I want my students to get right away, in all of my courses, is that we are going into social justice mode,” Dr. Henry said. “Historically, slavery, racist policies and a host of syndemic factors contribute to the plight of African Americans in today’s society—you can't look at adverse health outcomes of any marginalized population without considering the impact of racism on health, and again, we're discussing health promotion, we want to make certain that our students understand the entire story."
Dr. Henry will be teaching a number of undergraduate courses this fall, such as Human Sexuality, Introduction to Public Health and Health Services, Senior Seminar and Principles of Health Education and Health Promotion. She spent most of the summer with her parents in New Jersey, but as soon as August began, Dr. Henry has been working to ensure her undergraduate and graduate courses are ready for virtual instruction this fall semester.
In developing her syllabuses, Dr. Henry focused on pedagogy and best teaching methods to keep students engaged in an online-only learning environment. She specifically focused on the concept of swift trust through having students work in teams toward collective goals in the courses.
To do this, Dr. Henry assigned students into groups where they will have to lead class discussions and give short presentations on various current events related to health promotion at the beginning of class. She said that she hopes these group assignments will ultimately promote student engagement and cohesiveness.
"In doing so, it ensures that there's consistency, community and creativity built into the course, which also ensures engagement, satisfaction and retention,” Dr. Henry said. "Leading a class keeps students on their toes by teaching them how to critically think about questions that may arise while thickening their skin for any potential feedback.”
Dr. Henry also makes it a point to include timely subjects into her coursework, such as having students in her Human Sexuality course write a thought piece on the latest Cardi B music video. In her Principles of Health Education and Health Promotion course, students will debate topics that are also relevant social justice issues, such as increased gun control, capital punishment or healthcare as a human right for all. This semester, Dr. Henry said, she plans to add a debate topic on whether the COVID-19 vaccine should go to vulnerable populations first.
She continues to keep her coursework relevant and engaging while building familial relationships with students, she said, because of her own undergraduate education at Howard University and the relationships she built with faculty there. The key to building relationships with her students at GW has been being honest about her failures as well as her successes, she said. Her passion for public health helps students connect with her and stay in touch years after graduation.
"I've been teaching at GW for 12 years now, and I tell people it's the only career where I've been able to be my authentic self and be paid for it,” Dr. Henry said. “The fact that I can be who I am every day and teach as well as learn from students and encourage them into action… AND be passionate about this subject matter is something I would do for free. I love it that much."
She looks forward to being able to have fun with her students on campus once it’s safe to do so, but in the meantime, she said she wants people to stay safe and stay positive while remembering that we are figuratively and literally all in this together.
“I believe that the GW community, especially the Milken Institute School of Public Health, go above and beyond for our students and each other,” Dr. Henry said. “I have no doubt that when we're back on campus, it's going to be a really fantastic time and a wonderful learning experience for all those involved."