New racial justice grants awarded by the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences support research for social justice initiatives that will engage with the community.
Two projects received funding: one focused on poetry and creative writing workshops and the second on studying racial disparities in vaccination rates. The faculty leading these projects hail from both the Eberly College and the School of Public Health.
“The Eberly College was proud to partner with our Office of Research to support this important internal grant program that brings our faculty’s expertise to examine and understand issues pertaining to racial justice,” said Dean Gregory Dunaway. “We received a tremendous response to our program, and the two proposals selected represented the best from a very strong pool of research proposals.”
Teaching Assistant Professor of English Amy Alvarez is a poet, educator and scholar focusing on race, ethnicity, gender, systemic injustice and social justice. Her poetry explores the ideas of systemic racism, which is inspired by personal experiences and those of her ancestors. In this book project, she will consider what it means to (not) matter as a Black woman in our current times.
“My writing has always been engaged with my own embodied experiences of race, with the physical and mental colonization of my ancestors and with the idea of Blackness and the Black body as an agentive force,” Alvarez said. “Given the current national and international discussions around the lack of regard and respect for Black lives, I felt that the only response I could have to these times was to continue and deepen my exploration of these themes.”
In addition to publishing the book, Alvarez will lead on-campus readings and offer writing workshops at high schools in communities of color. She has already scheduled a virtual talk with an English class at Vaughn International Studies Academy in Los Angeles and hopes to schedule talks at Morgantown High School and University High School soon. She also plans to use the book to engage the local community and raise funds for organizations serving Black, Indigenous and people of color.
“I believe that this work is important in the current climate of our nation given that Black and Brown women’s lives are often not at the forefront of discussions of racial inequality in the United States. Through this act of creative generation, I hope to enrich this conversation,” she said. “I look forward to building more bridges with teachers locally, regionally and nationally and working with high school students as this is such an important time for young people to find and define their voices.”
The second project funded by this initiative is led by Eberly Distinguished Professor of Public Service and Professor of Psychology Daniel McNeil and Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Public Health Linda Alexander. Through surveys and focus groups, they aim to address why Black adults have a lower rate of some immunizations than white adults. The study is expected to have a significant impact on approaches to administering anticipated vaccines for COVID-19.
“There is an intersection at this point in history of two events that have changed our lives and likely will continue to dominate them for some time to come: the COVID-19 pandemic and the reawakening and growing awareness of racial injustice in our society,” McNeil said. “As a psychological scientist, I want to work with my colleagues across disciplines to contribute by bringing a scientific approach to evoking societal change in terms of racial equity, specifically in terms of vaccines. This presents an opportunity for what could be a potentially life-saving change for people of color – providing information about a COVID-19 vaccine, giving authentic access to it and increasing immunization rates beyond what has been possible in the past.”
In addition to publishing their findings in scholarly journals, McNeil and Alexander plan to create a playbook to guide public health agencies in developing best practices for vaccine access in the Black community.
“Part of promoting vaccinations is making them freely and easily available, and another part is ensuring that all people in society believe that vaccines are specifically for them, have confidence in their effectiveness and safety and that they actually get immunized. How messages about the COVID-19 vaccine and its availability are communicated is important,” McNeil said. “We must learn what people in West Virginia, including those who are Black, know and believe about COVID-19, flu and other vaccines as well as what they believe they should do and intend to do when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. We need to know what information they want, how and when they want to receive that information and how best vaccines can be made available to them.”
Pilot data from this project will also be used to apply for a larger grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“Racial justice begins with the healing of a community. When Dr. McNeil and I began our Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia Smile project with the African American community four years ago, we sought to improve the oral health of women and children," Alexander said. "Through the recognition and support of the Eberly College funds, we are poised to make a difference toward our understanding of vaccine awareness and utilization with a population that suffered historically from institutional racism and barriers in the availability of and access to potentially lifesaving medication.”
Alvarez, McNeil and Alexander will discuss their projects in a virtual event with the campus community, to be announced later this fall.