Celebrating Black History Month: African-American Faculty Impacting African-American Communities

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Black History Month is a celebration of the accomplishments of African Americans, and a time for recognizing the central role that African Americans played in U.S. history.

We usually look to the past when acknowledging achievement during Black History Month, but there is passionate work being done right now that will be tomorrow’s history. It is being written in the research and innovations of many USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work faculty members who have devoted their careers to uncovering and calling out prejudice, discrimination and inequality that adversely affect communities of color.

We honor Black History Month by highlighting five of our extraordinary African-American faculty who share a commitment to empowering the African-American population and educating the next generation of social work professionals.

Tyan Parker Dominguez, Clinical Professor

In the early 1990s, while pursuing her Master of Public Health degree, Tyan Parker Dominguez came upon an article entitled Bad Outcomes in Black Babies: Race or Racism?, written by Dr. Dick David and Dr. Jimmy Collins. The article laid out that research and evidence did not support the theory that racial disparities in adverse birth outcomes are based on genetic predispositions. Instead, the article posed the necessity to approach the epidemiology by looking at race as a social construction and racism as a fundamental cause of disparities.

“Racism in a medical journal?! Finding that article was more than serendipity,” Dominguez said. “I think it was fate, or my destiny… I really do feel that this was sort of my purpose.”

For more than two decades, Dominguez has been studying persistent racial disparities in adverse birth outcomes. African-American women are at twice the risk of almost all other racial groups in the United States to suffer pre-term delivery, low birth weight and infant mortality.

The majority of early research she found on the subject focused on individual risk factors such as health behaviors, prenatal care, diet and exercise. The underlying assumption was that black women were not taking the best care of themselves during pregnancy or that something was genetically wrong with them. For Dominguez, it smacked of a ‘blaming the victim’ argument.

Dominguez’s studies, some of the first research to test the hypothesis of Collins and David, looked at the effects of social injustice on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of Black women and their unborn children. She found that racism-related stress is a unique kind of stressor, and one that cannot be escaped.

“Being born into and growing up in a society with a long and sordid history of racism subjects African-American women to certain psychosocial experiences and conditions that could have an adverse impact on their health,” she said.

Dominguez’s research has influenced the thinking, programming and policy at local, state and federal levels.

She was a member of former U.S. Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius’ advisory committee on infant mortality, tasked with developing recommendations for a national strategy to reduce death for infants. She served as co-chair of the Disparities Work Group within this committee, focusing on social determinants of health. Dominguez included recommendations based specifically on race as a social determinant connected to disparities in adverse birth outcomes.

“This work is personal, but it’s not just about me,” Dominguez said. “It really is about trying to understand what's happening to women like me and our babies. This is our next generation.”

Devon Brooks, Associate Professor

Devon Brooks is a gay, African-American man with an MSW and a PhD. Depending on the situation, one or more of these aspects of his diversity can be of greater or lesser significance to him and to how others perceive and treat him.

In certain contexts and for certain people “my blackness might be what stands out most at 2 o’clock in the morning when I'm walking from USC across the street,” Brooks explained. “For others, my gender might stand out most. And still for others, both my blackness AND my gender simultaneously might stand out, while no one is thinking about my sexual orientation.”

When he addresses diversity in his scholarship and teaching, Brooks focuses often on race, but also on how race intersects with other factors such as sexual orientation, gender, class or geographic location.

Using this intersectional lens, Brooks has developed an intercultural competence model to train social workers. It is important to him that students and professionals appreciate the fact that how people identify can change over time and depending on context, and it may not always align with how they are perceived and treated by others.

“I think that’s especially important for the African-American community in the U.S., where [non-black] people often look at us as if we are only black people,” Brooks said. “We are not always seen as having nuance, and having identities based on something other than race… or based on something in addition to race.”

Brooks has devoted his career to researching and addressing child maltreatment prevention, assessment and treatment, with a focus on foster care and adoption. In these systems, there tends to be disparities and worse outcomes for poor black children related to removal, the number of placements experienced, reunification and remaining in care longer than children of other racial and class backgrounds.

His work around adoption argues for more individualism when considering foster care and adoptive placements for children. His research stresses that race is a really important factor, and that, when in their best interests, children be placed in racially matched families. However, he also urges that the system needs to recognize that not placing a child in an adoptive home because the only homes available are not racially matched, could produce a worse outcome.

Brooks stresses that there is a need for additional resources to be put toward ways to encourage and support particularly more African Americans and Latinos becoming foster and adoptive parents. At the same time, the child welfare system has an obligation to make sure that transracial foster care placements and adoptions are successful.

“My research has had an impact, I think, on social work professionals working directly with foster youth and adoptees and their parents and families,” Brooks said. “I'd like to think it's also influenced agency procedures and practices. Ultimately, I hope I’ve also made a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable children, particularly those who were victims of maltreatment or who were at risk of being victims.”

Ruth C. White, Clinical Associate Professor

Ruth C. White believes that the way American culture is organized makes people unhealthy. Lack of sleep and poor nutrition decrease emotional resilience, and make it difficult for the body to deal with stress. “Why not sleep?” said White. “What’s wrong with laying around in bed on a Saturday? Nothing.”

When marginalized groups, like African Americans, LGBTQ and immigrants, experience all of the chronic stresses of discrimination in society, they are then at higher risk for all the negative health outcomes, because their stress level is greater.

Through consulting on health and social welfare around the globe, and her own experience with illness, recovery and resilience with bipolar disorder, White has realized that stress is the number one cause of chronic illness. Her work specializes in individual and community-based strategies, organizational change and policy advocacy on the subject. She is the author of The Stress Management Workbook: De-Stress in 10 Minutes or Less and another self-help book on stress that will be out later this year.

Currently, she is fighting to integrate mental health into primary care, and believes making it part of a health assessment will lead to early diagnosis and even prevention.

For African-American communities in particular, White believes integrating mental health will help destigmatize it, normalize it and make it more acceptable to get help. “I think many of the health problems African Americans have, disparity-wise, are because of stress,” White said. “Because racism is stress.”

White works to help individuals and organizations effectively manage or eliminate stress, so that things like diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety will decrease overall. When stress is reduced, people are healthier.  Fixing one’s sleep, nutrition, physical activity and interpersonal relationships is the simple formula for health and building emotional resilience.

Benita Walton-Moss, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Nursing

Helping patients self-manage their illnesses successfully is a passion that has fueled Benita Walton-Moss’ career. Health literacy―the ability to understand information in order to make decisions about one’s health―is the foundation of prevention and treatment, she said.

As a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner for over 30 years, Walton-Moss specializes in advanced health assessment across the lifespan, especially for vulnerable populations.

She recently conducted a trial focused on intervention with African Americans who suffer high blood pressure, looking at ways to help them decrease and self-manage it. The unpublished study revealed that there is a critical need for health care providers to increase the intensity of education around high blood pressure over time; not to assume that individuals who have been dealing with a chronic illness are knowledgeable about the illness or practice basic care.

Understanding what high blood pressure is and why it is dangerous, as well as understanding food nutrition labels and correct medication administration is imperative.

“The whole idea is to decrease the risk of heart disease which remains the number one killer, especially of African Americans,” Walton-Moss said.

Individuals with chronic illnesses, like high blood pressure, are responsible for self-managing them over time.

“Our job is to help the patient manage the chronic illness because they become the captain of the ship,” Walton-Moss said. “Care providers, when helping patients, need always remember to start from where they are. Always help them to integrate education in the context of their own lives, not the way you would like to see their lives, but what their lives already are.”

Robynn Cox, Assistant Professor

Since 2001, Robynn Cox has been thinking about the role the criminal justice system plays in inequality. As an undergraduate, she participated in a summer research program to look at the substitutability between sweatshop labor and prison labor. As she continued through to her PhD, she remained very interested in understanding incarceration and its impact on African Americans.

Today, she is an inequality researcher interested in the role this system plays in inequality in general, and racial disparities in particular. African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and she believes the racial biases that are systemic in criminal justice play a role in perpetuating inequality.

Throughout her career, she has looked at understanding the social and economic consequences of mass incarceration using a life course approach.

“On the front end, I'm interested in understanding the policies that have led certain groups, such as African Americans, to have disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system,” Cox said. “Once people have that contact, how does it impact them, their families and their communities? Then on the back end, how do you successfully transition this group back into society?”

Her research looks into how federal policing grant programs have impacted drug arrests in general, and racial disparities in drug arrests in particular. From that perspective, an individual will have greater contact with the criminal justice system if there are policies that incentivize more policing.

She also has studies investigating how parental incarceration impacts the food insecurity among households with children.  

“There are many policies that are, on the surface, color-blind, but they’re not race neutral,” Cox said. “They’re racially biased or they’re implemented in a racially biased way.” Cox stresses that policy makers have to be very intentional about creating policies by conducting cost-benefit analyses.

“What’s the social value of that dollar we’re putting towards police?” Cox said. “Is it better spent to put it towards education, social services, or other social programs?”

Cox believes that racial bias in America has become structural because it has not been officially acknowledged the way it should.

“There have still been no reparations for slavery,” she said. “There are still certain subjects that we don’t want to talk about, or we don’t want to think about. But not talking about them perpetuates a lot of the social injustice and inequality that we see in our society today, including within the criminal justice system.”

Through her teaching of policy courses for MSW and PhD students, Cox hopes that they will come to understand the importance of policy and advocacy, and how that interacts with the more clinical side of social work. She would like her students to be cognizant of not only the person-in-environment, but also how the person and environment interacts with policy.  In order to understand the person and the barriers that the individual might be facing, they must expand their views to the macro issues that also keep people from being successful.

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)