Harvard affiliates, students, and scholars gathered this weekend for the sixth annual Black Health Matters conference around the theme of “Decolonizing Black Health.”
The two-day event, hosted by the Harvard Undergraduate Black Health Advocates, featured conversations with scholars — including the first Black deaf academic hosted by a student organization at Harvard, according to organizers — as well as keynote speeches, panels, and opportunities to purchase goods from local Black-owned businesses.
The conference was hosted in Northwest Labs and held in person for the first time in two years after the group’s conferences were shifted online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kristen A. Harriott ’24, co-president of HUBHA, said this year’s theme aimed to “challenge and transform” approaches to health care that may have been shaped by “colonialism, racism, and other forms of oppression.”
“At its core, decolonizing health involves shifting focus from Western medicine and holistic approaches to health to a maybe more holistic and community-centered approach, which recognizes the interconnectedness of all aspects of health — which may include social, cultural, environmental, maybe even spiritual factors,” she said.
HUBHA Co-President Kareem I. King ’23 described the difficulties that came with transitioning from a virtual to an in-person conference, which included obtaining funding and maintaining engagement throughout the day.
This year’s conference also featured a conversation with Franklin Jones Jr., a Ph.D. candidate at Liberty University and lecturer at Boston University, who discussed his experiences navigating the healthcare system as a Black deaf person and the history of Black American Sign Language.
Imani Fonfield ’25, a hard-of-hearing student who serves as co-director of advocacy and community engagement for HUBHA, characterized the process of organizing the panel as “foreign” and “overwhelming.”
Ultimately, however, Fonfield wrote that finding a Black-identifying ASL interpreter for the event was gratifying, describing the interpreters as her “golden contacts.”
Fonfield reflected in a statement that she “learned an incredible amount” about navigating interpreter services and encountered interpreters who were willing to “lift our mission up” despite accessibility challenges.
During the conference, a Sunday panel titled “Understanding and Resolving Black Americans’ Mistrust in Our Health Care System” explored discrepancies and discrimination in healthcare for Black Americans.
The speakers — Co-Project Director Eileen Milien, Director of Youth Programs Laetitia Pierre-Louis, and Director of Education and Curriculum Efosa Enoma — are on the Board of Directors at We Got Us, a Boston-based collective that aims to educate and empower marginalized groups about Covid-19, the vaccine, and medical racism.
During the panel, Enoma said that there are deeper reasons for vaccine hesitancy in Black communities.
“A lot of times you just want to say, ‘Oh, Black people don’t trust the medical community. That’s their fault, hands off,’” Enoma said.
But Enoma discussed a history of racism in the medical field as a larger reason for distrust, citing experiments by J. Marion Sims on enslaved women that formed the basis for oncology.
“The founder of gynecology isn’t a white man, it’s Black women. We founded gynecology with our bodies, unfortunately, without our consent,” she said. “But we see how today, we still face the biggest health disease when it comes to our gynecological health, we still have the highest rates of fibroids and other backlog issues.”
Oge C. Ogbogu ’24, the internal outreach director of the conference, said that there has been a “really great” and “positive” response from speakers and attendees, especially given the interactive nature of the panels.
“One of the amazing things about this conference was that every panel that you went to, every keynote, every person, was so actively engaged, asking questions, and just like, wanting to learn,” she said.
She described the conference as more of an “open process of discussion,” rather than a “top-down of speaker to audience.”
King said the reason for putting on the annual conferences is to bring to light issues facing Black communities.
“We think about how our people are differentially treated in the healthcare system and ways that we can work to essentially transform that for the future and keep raising awareness about it so that it does change at the higher levels,” he added.
—Staff writer Tristan T. Darshan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.