Promoting health equity, one scholar at a time

With BrownTogether support, the Health Equity Scholars program is creating a network of diverse and transformational leaders who will use their training to bring equity and justice to public health.

Katia Jackson, a graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, majored in psychology. Tougaloo College graduate Justin Coleman was an undergraduate chemistry major. And Kayla Kinsler focused on human development at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Now, they’re all Health Equity Scholars pursuing Master of Public Health degrees at Brown.

For more than 50 years, Brown has had an educational partnership with Tougaloo, a historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi. The partnership includes several types of programs — including one in public health — that give Tougaloo students the option to study at Brown and Brown students the opportunity to visit Tougaloo or engage in collaborative research with their peers at the institution.

The Health Equity Scholars program at Brown’s School of Public Health, which grew out of the Tougaloo partnership, gained traction with both applicants and donors at a particularly difficult moment in our nation’s recent history.

“This program expanded to include students who earned their undergraduate degrees from any historically Black college or university (HBCU) after the racial unrest we saw following the killing of George Floyd,” says Jai-Me Potter-Rutledge, director of the program. “It is a direct response to the need to change the face of public health leadership to better reflect the make-up of our communities.”

The Brown faculty and staff really put us as students first. Everyone checks in on you and provides you with the resources and extra services you might need. It’s like a family atmosphere.

Justin Coleman Health Equity Scholar
Justin Coleman posing for a picture in front of the School of Public Health building.

In the fall of 2021, the program welcomed a cohort of 12 students, whose interests range from maternal health and nutrition in underserved communities to environmental health factors and the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in African American men.

“The Brown faculty and staff really put us as students first,” says Coleman, who is among those in this year’s cohort. “Everyone checks in on you and provides you with the resources and extra services you might need. It’s like a family atmosphere.”

“There’s a multifaceted approach to their experience here,” says Potter-Rutledge. “They are working toward their MPH degree, but they also have increased mentorship and coaching. In addition, they partake in a leadership development series in collaboration with Brown’s School of Professional Studies.”

Diversifying public health leadership

When Ashish K. Jha began his term as dean of Brown’s School of Public Health in September 2020, he noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted deep inequities in our society and systemic racism’s effects on public health. Jha, who is currently on leave while he serves as White House COVID-19 response coordinator for the Biden administration, championed the Health Equity Scholars program as a way to address these issues through the development of new leadership.

“Dismantling systemic racism and its effects on public health is always going to be a challenge,” he said during a March 2021 interview. “It’s clear to me that we need to train different people as part of the leadership to effectively tackle these things.”

In addition to academic courses, enhanced mentorship, and leadership development, the Health Equity Scholars program incorporates research opportunities, applied public health experiences (APHE), networking events, and a supportive community structure. The program covers full tuition and fees for each student, stipends for part-time research assistantships, and financial assistance to complete the APHE. 

Katia Jackson is conducting her APHE with the Sankofa Initiative, a program of the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation in Providence. The initiative builds community around food and culture in the city’s diverse West End neighborhoods.

“They’ve transformed vacant lots into affordable housing and developed both a greenhouse and a community garden to grow foods that are culturally relevant for them,” Jackson says. “I’m glad that I’m getting this opportunity to look at factors related to food insecurity and conduct outreach to breastfeeding mothers in particular. I want to be able to address those factors and understand how they lead to more inequality.”  

Kayla Kinsler will be working with the Black Women’s Health Imperative to implement and study the results of a culturally tailored Type 2 diabetes prevention project. She has also been conducting research about healthy eating habits and mindfulness among Black women.

“Rhode Island is a pretty small state,” Kinsler says. “I think it’s easier to do community work here and really make an impact because you can engage a good portion of the community.”

“ People just understand the vision. We have donors who have been able to meet the students. They are seeing the impact and learning how extraordinary the students are. ”

Kathryn Kempton Amaral Senior Director of Public Health Leadership

Supporting the future of public health

Over the past two fiscal years, donors have contributed more than $3.7 million to support the Health Equity Scholars program. As a result, the School of Public Health will welcome 19 scholars in fall 2022 from HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Rhode Island natives/residents who demonstrate a commitment to health equity in Rhode Island.

“People just understand the vision,” says Kathryn Kempton Amaral, senior director of public health leadership at the school. “We have donors who have been able to meet the students. They are seeing the impact and learning how extraordinary the students are.”

The program has also been endorsed by alumni and parents working in the public health sphere, who have signed on as mentors.

“I deeply believe in this program,” says Frank Williams P’23, P’24, a Brown parent and co-founder of Evolent Health, a company that seeks to reduce the cost of care while improving clinical quality. “Organizations working hard to do good need people from impacted communities. These students will be more effective at designing solutions and engaging communities because they profoundly understand the issues.”

Williams serves as a program mentor and says he is energized by the passion the scholars bring to their work. “It’s wonderful to meet young people who want to do something incredible, and I’m honored to support them in doing that.”

Kinsler echoes that sentiment, reinforcing the scope of impact the Health Equity Scholars can have on the public health sector.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in public health because I feel like many public health issues disproportionately impact communities of color,” she says. “If you allow more students of color to go into this field and study it without the financial burden, then we’re going to be able to go back into our communities — where people are typically more trusting of people who look like them.”