New Student Fellowships Assess Racial Equity Across Organizations

Community Engagement; Diversity; Students

The Brown School recently completed the first full year of a new program aimed at training students to examine racial equity in field placements. The Racial Equity Fellows program provided six fellows with skills, knowledge and support in working with field instructors, staff and community stakeholders to assess and implement strategies to promote equitable practices in community-based organizations in the St. Louis region.

“We are aiming to discover what racial equity means to each organization and then use data and interviews to identify blind spots and suggest evidence-based strategies to achieve their vision,” said Jewel Stafford, director of the program and associate director of the School’s Office of Field Education.

The fellows worked in three organizations, including the Brown School Dean’s Office.

“The Brown School fellows focused on the role of data in advancing racial equity and recommended several next steps, including a qualitative analysis of practices and decision-making processes as well as a quantitate dive into outcomes for students, faculty, and staff,” said Dean Mary McKay.

The program began with one semester in spring 2019, and was expanded to a full year beginning in the fall. Fellows received a stipend and academic credit for their work. The program faculty conducted bi-weekly seminars on the fellowship’s curriculum, which included why racial equity analysis is important and change-management theory. A community advisory board helped guide the program.

“We want to find out if everyone is on the same page when they say what they mean by racial equity, and then look at racial data, hiring practices, how leadership decisions are made and whether the people who are affected feel that their voices are heard,” Stafford said.

Aura Aguilar, MSW ’20, said she was drawn to the program by her interest in labor rights and immigrant rights, particularly in the Latinx community in her home state of California.  “It’s important to do that work with a racial equity framework,” she said. She and Kyliah Thompson, MSW ’20, worked with the staff, steering committee and board of Alive & Well Communities, a St. Louis non-profit that focuses on trauma-informed work in schools and communities across Missouri, and bringing racial equity to that work.

“We did a racial equity audit of Alive and Well to make sure the work they were doing was aligned with a racial equity lens inside the organization,” she said. Racial equity was defined as “when people have access and opportunity regardless of race,” a definition that came from Forward Through Ferguson, an organization that was founded following the death of Michael Brown. After the audit, the fellows made a presentation to Alive and Well, McKay and Forward Through Ferguson.

“What we found is the organization needs to provide space to have these difficult discussions about racial equity,” she said. “Language on racial equity has to be the same by all staff. Questions about bias aren’t easy to have.  Alive and Well was open, and able to have these conversations.”

Aguilar said her fellowship experience helped her better understand the challenges in addressing inequities. “My biggest takeaway is that racial equity tends to be very intellectualized,” she said. “Social workers use a lot of jargon, and we tend to talk around the issues a lot. This fellowship helped me realize when we are talking too much and need to start acting to change processes and promote racial equity.”

The fellows’ work was beneficial, according to Vontriece McDowell, MSW ’08, Director of Community-Based Interventions for Alive and Well.  “It was very useful,” she said.  “They did a great jog in suggesting next steps and recommendations.  The audit let us know how equity needs to be advanced in different pieces of our work and to make sure we had a common understanding of what racial equity was.”

Alive and Well is putting together a workgroup to focus on equity, and gathering racialized data to help guide its efforts.

The audit of the Brown School Dean’s Office was completed by Cristian Vargas, MPH ’20, and Mikayla Branz, MSW/MPH ’21. They gathered information about the data sources and data collected by each department, with special attention to racialized data that could contribute to racial equity work. They also interviewed department personnel to understand how the data is used.

“It’s something that’s pretty unique to the Brown School,” Vargas said of the program. “There seems to be a focus in higher education and the business world on diversity, but equity gets lost.  It’s harder to envision.” His interest in racial health disparities led him to apply for the fellowship.

His experience gave him an inside look into school administration and helped identify gaps in data that could be filled to improve equity.  He cited as an example data collected by career services that detailed salaries for Brown School graduates immediately following graduation but without demographic information. Adding demographics could help identify racial disparities and implement ways to address them.

“It was definitely a useful experience,” he said. “There are not a lot of institutions that are trying to do this,” he said. “Being at the forefront is something that was very valuable to me.”

One of the biggest challenges faced by the fellows was at the City Garden Montessori school. Taylor Brown, MSW ’20, who worked on the audit with David Blount, MSW 21, said the part-private, part-public charter school was going through turmoil as some in the community believed wealthier white families were pushing out families of color.

“It was a tumultuous year for the City Garden community,” Brown said. “We did a comprehensive evaluation of the school, emphasizing racial equity.” They studied data from internal records, and those from the Missouri Department of Secondary Education along with interviews of teachers and administrators. “We had some alarming findings” about racial disparities at the school, he said. “We planned a ‘data walk’ to bring everyone from students to board members in the same room with our findings and help find a way for pockets of the community to heal and communicate.”  But those plans were canceled after the coronavirus struck, and the event is now planned to occur online in the fall.

Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, Brown said his fellowship was “a wonderful experience.”

“I’ve learned a great deal about racial equity in organizations, the process of change management and the pushback to change that can come from clients and staff, even at City Garden, which is a pioneer and leaps and bounds ahead of others in pursuing equity.”

A strong community of people in St. Louis, including Forward Through Ferguson, has been inspiring, said Brown, who grew up in a rural part of Arkansas that he said had a long history of racism. “I got plugged into this dedicated community that advocates for racial equity,” he said. “It’s what brought me to St. Louis.”