A public policy researcher and community advocate, Breanca Merritt, PhD, director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy and clinical assistant professor at IUPUI, focuses her work on transforming local policy efforts.
Speaking at this year’s IU School of Medicine Cultural Awareness Town Hall, Merritt will share key research about systemic racism in legislative and administrative decisions while also reflecting on lessons learned from COVID-19. She shares valuable ways for medical professionals to mitigate the effects that COVID-19 has on communities of color.
What led you to study Health Promotion Sciences?
I initially pursued my PhD in political science with an emphasis on public administration and public policy, which was a very high-level approach to government and research. A focus on community health allowed me to connect more directly with communities and engage their perspectives and experiences in my work. Public health also utilizes the concept of “health in all policies,” which recognizes that all policies affect communities’ health. This was important because it helped me build skills for working directly in and with communities while also understanding the importance of macro-level issues beyond an individual or community’s control.
Describe the mission of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy.
Many organizations and individuals play a role in policy change. Our goal at the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy is to provide well-research information that reflects community need and enables others to make informed decisions about policy change. This research focuses on Central Indiana, as an effort to be able to provide real-time support for local organizations and decision makers. Upon completing our research individuals can then read our work and uses it as a part of their motivation or efforts to advocate for change. We are most likely to see change at the organizational level, where we make recommendations to nonprofits who change their services or activities because of an evolution.
What motivated you to research the impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color?
As a person with a background in government, race and public health research, the initial discussions about why people of color were more likely to get COVID-19 were frustrating. It seemed that people were mostly only interested in the data being shared by race, and the reasons why people were getting sick (e.g. being more likely to be a frontline worker) were not being meaningfully discussed at the time. Most of the discussion also focused on national-level issues but did not provide context about what that meant for Marion County. I thought if it could be localized, then it might help everyone (including our team) process the ways different communities locally were experiencing COVID-19.
What trends are you seeing?
The government policy response is unequal across states and is fragmented across local, state and federal governments. The response does not fully address the wide range of economic stability and social wellbeing issues being faced by individuals and families because of COVID-19, such as childcare and K-12 education, housing stability, and employment/income. Even with medical interventions, these problems are getting worse along with COVID-19 incidence rates and exacerbates COVID-19. For example, if a person does not have stable housing, they may end up staying in a large household of friends or family members, which will increase their likelihood of being exposed to COVID-19.
What can medical professionals do today to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on communities of color?
I would encourage medical professionals to learn more about the historical context and social determinants affecting communities of color and listen meaningfully to their experiences. None of these communities are monolithic, but I think one of the biggest, but understandable, issues in the medical profession is the need to identify risk factors. For example, the idea is that if a person is Black or Latino, then they are at risk for contracting or dying from COVID-19. Consequently, medical professionals lump it into a risk factor instead of fully understanding why race or ethnicity is a factor, rather than the racism or structural issues that make their health experiences worse.
Communities of color often mistrust the medical profession for a variety of reasons. A lot of the discussion has focused on the Tuskegee experiments, where Black Americans were unknowingly part of a highly unethical study during the 20th century, but that only took place in one U.S. state. Unequal medical treatment is also an ongoing problem, evidenced by Black women who die in childbirth or experience complications regardless of their educational level or income status. I would also recommend medical professionals work with others, collaboratively or through formal networks outside of the medical profession, to broaden their understanding of how to meaningfully engage persons of color, beyond just their medical practice.
Tell me about your efforts to mitigate racial inequities in social policy?
Much of my work lately has focused on engaging decision makers (mostly locally, but with some national audiences) about practical steps they can use to address racial inequity in their community mostly related to housing, but also social policy more broadly (e.g. financial stability). Having the conversation is important, but also sharing tools, and connecting them to other individuals and organizations who are deeply skilled in addressing internal organizational aspects of racial equity, I hope is a bridge to making lasting organizational change.
Interested in learning more? Join Breanca Merritt, PhD, at the Cultural Awareness Town Hall on Thursday, January 28, 2021 from Noon – 1 p.m. Faculty, learners and staff, as well as the broader community, are invited to register for this event.