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Third Annual Black Health Matters Conference Explores Racial Disparities and ‘Community Empowerment’

Principal Investigators (PIs) will decide whether to continue operations during the strike that will be conducted by Harvard Graduate students on Dec. 3.
Principal Investigators (PIs) will decide whether to continue operations during the strike that will be conducted by Harvard Graduate students on Dec. 3. By Daniel J. Kwon
By Jessica Lee and Christina T. Pham, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s Black Health Matters Conference hosted its third annual conference this weekend with a series of keynote speakers, panels, and workshops discussing racial disparities in public health outcomes for black Americans.

A team of undergraduates plans and organizes the conference each year at Harvard.

Two undergraduate students founded the organization three years ago after they felt frustrated by lower health outcomes in marginalized communities, according to conference co-director Yoseph D. Boku ’21.

Boku said the purpose of the conference is both to shed light on social determinants of health and to discuss possible interventions with students and faculty at Harvard.

Boku said the theme guiding this year’s conference was “community empowerment,” or encouraging individual participation in the public health decision-making process.

“If you could make community members agents of social change, and if you make every community member responsible for improving not only their own health, but also their neighbor’s health, then you can drastically decrease social determinants,” Boku said.

Keynote speakers, panelists, and workshops met in the Northwest Building to examine social determinants of health that are particularly relevant to black Americans. Discussions on the first day of the conference included covered topics like black maternal mortality, racial barriers to accessing medications, black mental health care, and spirituality.

Harvard School of Public Health Professor Nancy J. Krieger ’80 spoke about the importance of considering history and context in empirical research when analyzing racial and health inequity.

“Again, the point of such research is not to — quote unquote — prove that racism is bad. It is to understand and prevent its adverse health impacts and spark imagination and action to bring about health equity,” she said.

The conference’s second day dealt with the issues of HIV/AIDS, mental health stigma, food and housing inequality, sexuality, drug use, and sleep health among black Americans.

“I think these spaces are a great place for people who are all in the same mission to come together and be like, ‘This is something that’s real, and what are we going to do about it?’” attendee and public health worker Andrea C. Royo said. “It’s good to kind of convene and speak truth to what’s going on.”

Attendee Sergine Cindy M. Zeufack ’20 said she appreciated the platform that the conference offers because she thinks learning about these matters in public health classes often feels too “abstract.”

“Being able to attend a conference like this really takes the abstract and makes it really concrete, because you have all these panelists of variety, of different backgrounds, giving you all this information, whether it’s empirical data or personal experiences,” Zeufack said.

Boku said he hopes the conference will mobilize student attendees to address the social determinants of health.

“We think that the only way we’re going to solve social determinants of health is by mobilizing youth and making youth key members in the fight for health equity,” Boku said.

—Staff writer Jessica Lee can be reached at jessica.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Christina T. Pham can be reached at christina.pham@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Christina_TPham.

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