Conversations About Race and Ethnicity are a First for UAMS

By Heather Malveaux, MPH, MPS

Heather Malveaux, MPH, MPS

In the 2011 spring semester, I took the Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities course taught by Drs. Kate Stewart and Creshelle Nash in the College of Public Health. The makeup of the class was evenly mixed with black and white students. It was the first time in my entire life experience as a student that I had the opportunity to have honest and open conversations about race, and this was the first time as a black woman that I was allowed and encouraged to truly learn from the perspective of my fellow white students. The environment was safe, supportive, non-judging, and forgiving.

After taking the class, I wanted to recreate that environment for other COPH students, so I approached Dr. Stewart with the idea of founding a campus-wide student organization. This was the genesis of my master in public health final project (formerly known as an integration project), entitled, Diversity Now: Using Community-Based Participatory Research to Guide Racial and Ethnic Diversity Initiatives at UAMS

With Dr. Stewart’s guidance, I sought to inform the establishment of a formal student organization that would provide opportunities for the UAMS student community to engage in activities that promote and foster diversity across lines of race, ethnicity, and culture. The aim was to create the organization with the guidance of the opinions, wants and needs of the target population. So, it was decided that the cornerstone of the project would be community-based participatory research, which is an approach to research that equitably and actively involves participants in the research process.

In the 2011 fall semester, I set out to gather UAMS students’ opinions about the future organization’s development by facilitating conversations on race and ethnicity with racial representation from all UAMS colleges. The focus groups were held in late November. The most poignant finding was that students wanted a group much larger in scope than I had imagined! The consensus was that faculty and staff needed to be invited, informed, and involved in whatever group was created – and not just as overseeing bodies, but as participants.

My secondary project activities included conducting key informant interviews among various UAMS stakeholders and hosting a community conversation that would serve as an example of a student diversity engagement initiative. However, due to the expressed needs heard in the focus groups, adjustments were made, and the conversation grew to include students, faculty, staff, and administration. 

Participants were guided through small group dialogue that was provoked by visuals depicting various stereotypes. Equipped with ground rules of participation and common language terms on race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, religion/spirituality, and economic class, 25 participants (10 Black, African American, or African, one Asian, and 14 White) daringly shared their first experiences with race, their own racial biases, and instances of racial profiling at UAMS with their peers and colleagues in an environment that was safe, non-judging, and supportive. The dialogue overflowed with honesty, inclusivity and hope and concluded with suggestions on how the UAMS community can strive to become one of greater inclusion and acceptance. More importantly, bridges were built across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, age, faculty, staff, students, administration, and colleges.

The emerging themes that came out of the conversations that evening were:

  • Subtle racism exists and is often overlooked but often perpetuated.
  • Racism and discrimination are occurring at UAMS.
  • There is a significant lack of racial and ethnic diversity among students, faculty, staff, and administration at UAMS.
  • There is a need for institutionally sanctioned cultural competency initiatives in both formal and informal settings for UAMS students, faculty, and staff.
  • Students, faculty, and staff should be made aware that issues surrounding race and ethnicity exist, learn the value of diversity, and learn how to uncover and eradicate unconscious bias that interferes with cross-cultural interactions.
  • Expressed was a strong want and need for continued dialogue on race and ethnicity and other things that divide.
  • There is hope and excitement about continuing dialogue and making a positive difference at UAMS.

I concluded my project in March with the completion of a report that summarized my activities, findings, and proposed next steps to be taken by the university. Primarily, it is my hope and recommendation that conversations about race and ethnicity are intentionally maintained and developed as a function of the university.

Heather Malveaux is a 2012 graduate of the UAMS COPH and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.