Category: Features

Racial/ethnic disparities in alcohol prevention & policy: an interview with Rhonda Jones–Webb

Racial/ethnic disparities in alcohol prevention & policy: an interview with Rhonda Jones–Webb

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

March 2018 by Amelie Hyams

Nationally, African American men and white men are drinking in about the same percentages. But African American men report having more health and social consequences of drinking than white men. (e.g., cirrhosis of the liver, problems with work, family, law).

Since first learning about this as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Rhonda Jones-Webb has built an impressive line of research around finding out: why?

Currently a Professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the UMN School of Public Health, Jones-Webb defines herself as “one of just a handful of minority researchers “ who studies alcohol epidemiology and policy with a special focus on race, class, and neighborhood influences.

She looks at the causes of higher rates of alcohol-related problems among African Americans and what can be done to reduce them. She is especially concerned with the role of alcohol policies as a tool to prevent future problems.

Why is this research important?

Alcohol-related problems have a tremendous social impact on individuals, families, and communities. Alcohol use is the third leading cause of death in the United States – and it’s preventable. It’s also related to higher incidents of violence and other crimes.

Jones-Webb believes neighborhood poverty contributes to alcohol-related problems in African American communities. “Poorer neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black, have more alcohol outlets, e.g., liquor stores. Alcohol is also more highly promoted through billboards, bus shelters, etc. in these neighborhoods.”

High alcohol content beverages, such as malt liquor, are also heavily promoted in poorer neighborhoods and are associated with heavy drinking and crime.

Research shows that policy changes can be impactful. “Premature mortality, which is higher among African Americans, is preventable through policy change If we have the political will . . . People don’t have to die young.”

How does this research impact communities?

Jones-Webb looked at what cities have done towards implementing policies restricting the sales of high alcohol content beverages. “We looked at why some cities are more successful than others at implementing these policies and what could other cities learn? We found cities that were successful had greater public support for the policies and less opposition from the alcohol industry compared to cities that were unsuccessful.”

Along with colleagues in the Alcohol Epidemiology Program at the UM the School of Public Health, Jones-Webb studies the impact of implementing policies on alcohol outcomes at the local, state and national levels.

Barriers to changing policies

Jones-Webb provided examples from the alcohol policy field to highlight some of the challenges in adopting, implementing or changing alcohol policies. Residents in Oakland, California were concerned about the overconcentration of outlets and crime in their neighborhoods. While residents could not restrict the number of alcohol outlets, they pushed for a tax on alcohol outlets that provided funding for more police officers to monitor crime around alcohol outlets in their neighborhoods. “But that policy was heavily fought by the retailers.”

A number of cities that have placed restrictions on the sale of malt liquor have also faced opposition. Malt liquor is typically bought in large single bottles. “Rather than directly limit malt liquor sales, some cities passed laws that restricted single bottle sales, to minimize opposition.”

“Jones-Webb also commented, “it takes time and a lot of effort to get policies passed.”

She reminds us of when the blood alcohol limit (BAC) was lowered to .08, “it resulted in about a 20 – 30% reduction in fatal traffic crashes, but that was over a period of time.”

Interventions with youth

She is pleased to be involved in other studies, including working on a UM Grand Challenge research project on Just and Equitable Interventions with Chris Uggen in Sociology. They are evaluating different approaches to encourage healthy youth-to-adult transitions.

In addition, she has just completed a pilot study that examines what policies, programs, and practices are needed in the Twin Cities to reduce negative encounters between young African American men and police.

What keeps you engaged in this work – gives you hope for the future?

“I saw public health as an opportunity to foster social change. I was an English major at UCLA, and completed a Masters degree in African Literature and History there. Public Health seemed like a field where I could have the greatest impact on communities.”

“One thing that keeps me engaged is that public health problems like violent crime still persist and there are too few minority researchers in the field studying these issues.”

NIH has a number of alcohol research centers and training programs to encourage new investigators. Jones-Webb finds it encouraging seeing new people entering the field. “Without that type of support, you‘re not going to have much of a pipeline.”

Any advice for students who may want to do this work?

“I would encourage students to think about public health as an alternative to more traditional health fields like medicine and nursing. Think about public health and the impact it can have on improving people’s everyday lives.”

There, but Not There: Planning Communities for Undocumented Residents – An Interview with Fernando Burga

There, but Not There: Planning Communities for Undocumented Residents – An Interview with Fernando Burga

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

September 2017 by Amelie Hyams

Many of our communities have large populations of undocumented people. Assistant Professor Fernando Burga explores, how can we plan for them?

Burga researches and teaches in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He carries out community-engaged work focused on how urban planners can include immigrant groups in their planning practices. In addition to trying to find answers that work towards building inclusive communities, he investigates food justice in urban planning.

Urban planners, “make spaces where multiculturalism is celebrated.” Primarily they concern themselves with residents who are citizens, have property rights, and can advocate for themselves.

In certain locations, urban planners must also consider the presence of undocumented residents because they likewise impact planning systems for housing, transportation, school infrastructure, and issues related to public health.

Burga sees undocumented residents as a unique consideration for urban planners because “Urban planning practice doesn’t know what to do with them.” Undocumented residents are part of our communities. They work and live with us but they are not citizens. Urban planners don’t plan cities for them and traditionally they are not part of envisioning a city’s future. As Burga puts it, “They are there, but NOT there.”

Urban planning is perpetually evolving, according to Burga. “There are changes in the demographic makeup of our cities that push urban planning into new directions.” Part of this evolution is seen in considering how undocumented residents are perceived, included and excluded in community life. Some cities already have policies that address the situation, to an extent. Sanctuary city policies are an example of this. Other cities are catching up, yet, other cities actively pursue ordinances to exclude undocumented immigrant life.

“The truth is that cities need undocumented immigrant life – because they provide cheap labor that nobody wants to do. Government policy and the reality of people’s lives on the street are disjointed.”

Undocumented people endure an experience that is very different due to legal inclusion or exclusion. According to Burga, living an undocumented status “is also embedded with questions of power, capital, and knowledge in being able to do this. Becoming a citizen is a very hard thing. It represents a huge investment.”

Citizenship is also a very specific right. “It’s belonging to the nation-state and being a part of the political community of the nation-state. You get that right by either being born in the nation-state or by becoming a citizen.”

“The capacity to bear citizenship rights is key and has been part of our progress as an inclusive nation.” However, Burga believes that special considerations exist in accessing those rights.

Those with money, knowledge, and connections have an advantage in navigating the process. “The immigration system also has perks and openings for people who may invest in US soil, to become citizens faster. So there are all these interesting ambiguities in regards to who can access citizenship.”

For Burga, “the question of undocumented immigrant life is central to cities because it challenges normative assumptions at the core of urban planning practices.” Burga explores “how urban planning can become a platform for advocating the formation of citizenship, other than being born here or having acquired citizenship through a legal process.”

In addition to legal citizenship, Burga recognizes the possibility of “urban citizenships”. These are “types of citizenship that uphold political and civic participation at a neighborhood or city level.”

He asks, “What if we consider the cultural, economic, and political contributions that undocumented residents make toward their communities as platforms for community benefit and citizenship? ”

Is there push-back around the idea of focusing on undocumented people when planning for communities?

“Yes. I think the pushback regarding the illegality of undocumented life needs to be considered. But we should not demonize ordinary people doing their best to forge contributing lives. Rather we should consider how we can improve the current immigration system to direct undocumented residents towards the attainment of a legal status”.

Burga explains that there are some neighborhoods, cities or districts, here in Minnesota as in other states, where there is a “concentration of [undocumented] residents living, working, consuming, contributing and negotiating their lives within the community”. In these communities, “it becomes contingent to think about how planners can negotiate that ambiguity regarding undocumented people, to advocate for them– or not.”

“There is a long tradition in planning called advocacy planning, in which planners advocate for underrepresented communities,” says Burga. That tradition continues today, but with new challenges.

Burga is co-researcher with Tom Fisher in the College of Design on a project called – Drawing to Bridge the Gap, through a grant from U of M Extension. The project explores the challenges Latino families face in attaining educational success. This research addresses issues like transportation, school environment, housing conditions and other place-based concerns. Using design-thinking methods allows families to advocate for themselves.

Aligning this research scope with efforts addressing food justice, Burga also investigates food access through the lens of race, equity, and immigration. This work is complex, so Burga works with community groups that engage food system issues from the perspective of racial justice. “The Twin Cities is a very vibrant place for this work.” He cites the work of Saint Paul’s Urban Garden Alliance as a key example.

“The work of urban planners involves all of these questions. Where things get placed and why are planning questions. They are also questions that are embedded with power and who decides who we give precedence, in terms of decision making.”

Burga is eager to be involved in this evolution of urban planning. “I’m happy to be a witness and an ally – to get myself in tricky situations and negotiate my role as a Latino, a planner, and a scholar; to learn, grow, and move forward.“

Photo credit: Bruce Silcox

Minnesota Population Center Summer Diversity Fellowship Program

Minnesota Population Center Summer Diversity Fellowship Program

by Amelie Hyams

The Minnesota Population Center (MPC) is about demographics and numbers and what that data means for people in Minnesota and around the world.

They are also working to increase diversity and inclusion in these fields, as can be seen in the MPC Diversity Fellowship program, co-directed by Mia Riza and David Haynes.

The program was recently proposed as a subject for a Diversity Community of Practice (DCoP) Appreciative Inquiry in the DCoP Communications Subcommittee. Reviewing the details about the introduction of this program in an article written in 2015, it seemed like a good time to check in and see how things have gone so far.

We encourage you to read that earlier story and to learn with us through this Appreciative Inquiry with program co-director, Mia Riza, as we examine the why and how about what’s working well.

MPC serves interdisciplinary audiences of more than 150 faculty members, graduate students and research scientists in various fields from 26 academic units across 10 colleges at the University of Minnesota. Learn more about MPC.

Does MPC have goals towards equity, diversity and inclusion? If so, how does the Diversity Fellows program support those goals?

Yes, the goals are outlined in the diversity statement. The National Science Foundation was pressing the MPC and all other associates to do more outreach to diverse audiences. The MPC was always trying to be diverse but until 2015 there was no written statement.

Riza tells us the statement was actually an outcome of the initiation of this program. They wanted to be able to point to a statement that summed up the goals of the program so they needed to think about that first and craft a statement in the beginning stages of program development.

This has now become ingrained in the center. “We believed we were inclusive, but this takes us a step further. Having a program and naming it as such, puts action where you think your intentions are.”

What’s different/unique about this program?

“The work is very interdisciplinary – that’s unique.” MPC works with academic departments across the U, historians, sociologists, economists, environmentalists, and others.

But it’s really the mentorship model that is very unique. Haynes and Riza developed this model based on their own experiences and their vision of the need. It’s composed of four parts:

  1. a research data project
  2. 1-2 mentors: PhD staff researcher & faculty member
  3. a graduate student
  4. an undergrad student

Having the undergraduate student being mentored by someone who is nearly a peer, provides opportunity for insights into what it’s like to be a graduate student.

The graduate student in turn has an opportunity to learn how to be a mentor in a supportive environment.

Riza tells us that graduate students of color are called upon to mentor at a much higher rate than their white peers. Haynes and Riza are able to help them to develop the skills and confidence in their abilities, basically to develop their mentoring style, in a very supportive environment.

Members of the 2017 cohort of the MPC Summer Diversity Fellows Program.

Riza shared with us some of the comments collected from participant feedback surveys.

  • Students on mentoring:
    • Since they were from different educational backgrounds than me, we were able to exchange different outlooks and perspectives on the same thing.
  • Students on if they recommend the program to other students:
    • I love that it was more than an internship. It provided professional workshops to help students gain more than just a research experience.
    • It was a great experience. I learned a lot both in terms of technical knowledge and non-technical things as well. Also it was a good chance to get to know people outside my academic field, learn about their work, and connect with them. This fellowship is especially for an undergraduate since it let me start thinking about my future planning. Thank you for offering it!
  • Mentors on working in multi-tiered teams:
    • I think the multiple-level component was helpful. The grad student came away with a very valuable experience and the under graduate was able to learn how to utilize one resource and begin working as a team. My thought was that our team worked very well together. I was so impressed by their efforts.
    • I think it enhances the experience. Everyone is learning new things. If the grad students are not building as many technical skills, they are building mentoring skills no matter what. I also think the set-up alleviates any temptations toward a competitive atmosphere since rolls are well defined.
  • Mentors on what they liked about being a mentor:
    • I loved seeing the students learn about data, data cleaning, and data processing during the program. It was great to see them understand how hard data work actually is.
    • I really enjoyed the summer!! Great students, interesting project, awesome experience!

Are there ways you, as program leaders, would like to see the program evolve? If so, how?

For now the program is only open to UMN students. Riza feels it is going well, so someday they would like to expand it out to other students, beyond Minnesota.

What have the outcomes of the program been so far, as it has just concluded its third year?

Undergraduate students have gone into graduate school and chosen paths based on their experiences in the program. Both graduate and undergraduate students have been hired into research fields with the Population Center. Others have chosen work centered on this experience.

Particularly on the undergraduate level, program participants have used this experience to shape their direction. ”They maybe don’t know all the options and this program is a way to see some of the options available and to have the confidence in their ability to apply for graduate school.”

Riza feels that “from a departmental standpoint, it helps to have a program with the intention to bring in diverse and underrepresented people. It means that as a department, we value this.”

For questions about the MPC Diversity Fellowship program, and insights that may inform mentoring programs in your own units, please contact Mia Riza at




Gender, Sexuality, and Taxis: An Interview With Elliot James

Gender, Sexuality, and Taxis: An Interview With Elliot James

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

May 2017 by Amelie Hyams

Why should we pay attention to gender and sexuality in something as benign as setting up a business?

Elliot James, Assistant Professor of African History and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris, looks at how gender and sexuality are not typically factored into business models, and yet they play a significant part in normal operations.

“For instance when Uber was being internationalized,” says James, “in various parts of the world, from England, the US, India, South Africa, they noticed that a lot of women were complaining of being harassed and in some instances, they were being violently attacked. My study looks at how, in the process of being set up, it almost created the conditions for things like that to happen.”

Similar to the Uber model, discrimination has historically been part of the ride-sharing taxi business in South Africa. James explores how the taxi business became successful, under political conditions that didn’t want it to survive.

During apartheid, blacks weren’t allowed to own businesses. However, the government looked the other way when it came to taxi businesses. “It was seen as something that didn’t threaten the state” and so became pretty much the only option for blacks to run their own business.

“They were successful not just because of the political climate, but because it became a sort of this masculine industry that became seen as what respectable African families do . . . [and] it was able to thrive under those conditions.”

But this masculine model has had unintended consequences. James tells us, “In the historical record there are always these kinds of stories about rape – or that women were not able to own those kinds of businesses because they needed to be at home, not breadwinners.”

The taxi industry is a shared economy. “Drivers and passengers encounter all sorts of people every day. However, South Africa’s underrepresented minorities report some gender-based discrimination.”

“The industry was developed for normative, sexual presenting individuals and because of that history, it’s made it very difficult for queer people to feel safe within that,” James explains.

His goal is “to see how their discrimination came about historically, what was a product of that, and what are the best ways to change or challenge that situation.”

Who influenced him in this work?

Growing up in New York City, James was always interested in public transportation. His family relied upon it to get around, plus James’ father made his living as a bus driver. “He always talked in terms of driving a bus as a way to teach me about how to be good to people.”

As an undergrad at Carleton College, he recalled how Professor Harry Williams liked to expose his students to “really unconventional material” and make them think about its past. “I like to do that now, bring in songs and materials you don’t encounter … It brought [history] to life for me, and I like to teach that.”

“African Queer Studies was a way to look at different African histories in new ways, in ways that prioritize the concerns of gender and sexual minorities.” It brought together several of his interests.

James feels queer studies are very focused on the United States and Europe because they are seen as more progressive in valuing human rights, “while in places like Africa, the majority of countries kind of criminalize homosexuality and embrace very traditional African values. So queer studies overlooks Africa.”

However, on the African continent, ”South Africa is the only country that has enshrined in its constitution protections for gender and sexual minorities.” So South Africa seemed a likely place for James to research a queer studies topic on the African continent.

How does he conduct his research?

The ability to explore history through a broader, interdisciplinary scope serves James in his research. To learn the history of the taxi industry in South Africa, James digs into old taxi applications, business ledgers, newspaper articles and advertisement. He collects oral histories of taxi veterans who were foundational in setting up the business. He also journals, continually recording what he observes, engaging an anthropological perspective.

His research is almost entirely qualitative. But, he says, “The field of transportation studies is almost entirely quantitative.” So he is broadening the information they have.

“It’s not just how many riders from point A to point B – but what kind of experience did they have?”

James focuses deeper into the human experience, that’s not reflected in the data. ”My concern is the same as the feminist concern. I want to be sure that it is equitable for people of different gender and sexual identities.” 

How does his work impact the local community?

Learning about the rest of the world helps James strategize how to engage the local community. And when he lectures, he is able to bring in international perspectives.

“Having people in South Africa caring about what’s happening in the United States and having people in the United States care about what’s happening in South Africa, I think that’s a good starting place for getting traditionally underrepresented students into international affairs and international relations and being interested in things beyond the United States.”

He also encourages his students to use their own social realities to empathize with people across the globe. There are active students of color who are passionate about social justice who are focused on the US. “But if the University of Minnesota wants to engage in global affairs and have a global perspective, they need to reach students of color and attract them to this.”

What attracted him to teach in Morris?

“I grew up in New York City and now I live in a town the size of the apartment complex I grew up in, in the Bronx.” The differences between his hometown and his new home are obvious, but the choice was easy. The students drew him. James was very attracted to the student profile at Morris: the fact that 18% of the student body is American Indian. The vast majority is also low-income and first generation.

“In my experience here as a teaching fellow [initially], I found the students to be kind of less entitled about what they need to learn in your classes but really open about wanting to learn… So I really enjoy the students, they are really interested in learning.”

He also appreciates the small class size in Morris and the proximity to the Twin Cities, which he says he loves. “It’s the best of both worlds. A small teaching environment and the support to develop professionally.”

[Header Image Credit: Kari Adams, University Relations, University of Minnesota, Morris]

Humphrey School – Placing Diversity and Equity at its Core

Humphrey School – Placing Diversity and Equity at its Core

The Diversity Community of Practice (DCoP) is pleased to present the Humphrey School’s Diversity Strategic and Action Plan as our next Appreciative Inquiry.

We see this as a great example of a college advancing equity and diversity internally as well as externally. Already generally aware the School has been doing some work towards improving equity and diversity, we reached out to Laura Bloomberg, Associate Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, to learn more.

By providing answers to our questions, Bloomberg offered insights on Humphrey’s Diversity Strategic and Action Plan and about recent actions taken by the School toward recommitting to equity and diversity efforts.

Our Questions
Because of who they are, the Humphrey School is specifically called upon to lead in the area of public affairs. How does the Humphrey School describe their role in this area? Why did you feel there was a need to call out Equity and Diversity as part of the School’s strategic plan?

Tell us about the School having recently invited Glen Singleton to present “Courageous Conversations.” How have these conversations impacted the Humphrey School?

We wondered about recent events around racial inequity in the public realm that have produced deep concerns around policing and the community. How is the Humphrey School engaging in these dialogues?

Mission and Strategy

Bloomberg began by explaining the mission of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, which is to inspire, educate, and support innovative leaders to advance the common good in a diverse world. “Quite frankly, as a school we believe the very mission of the School offers a mandate to make equity and justice central to our work”. 

As part of its mission the Humphrey School recently released a strategy refresh” document that outlines their core focus areas for the next 3-5 years. Equity, diversity, and justice factor significantly into every priority area identified: 

  • Promoting Hope, Opportunity and Inclusion in a Changing America and a Changing World
  • Supporting the Institutions of Democracy and Civil Life
  • Expanding our Global Reach and Impact
  • Strengthen the Pipeline of Talented and Diverse Leaders

(Read the complete strategy statement to learn how Humphrey School is working forward in each of these areas.)

Courageous Conversations

Bloomberg told us how the Humphrey School is striving to make equity and diversity “everyone’s everyday work” through the efforts of their Diversity Committee, the Neighborhood Engagement Committee, and their regular Courageous Conversations dialogue series. 

These Courageous Conversations invite the entire Humphrey School community (all staff, all faculty and all students) into regular informal lunchtime dialogues about race, equity and justice.  

Bloomberg feels, “This creates opportunities for all to step outside of our policy research, teaching, learning and theorizing and to personalize the work of equity and justice in the world.”

Courageous Conversation CompassThe Courageous Conversation Compass identifies four primary ways that people deal with racial information, events, and/or issues:

  • emotional,
  • intellectual
  • moral
  • relational

The compass points are used to anchor the conversation. They help people to reflect on their feelings, beliefs, need for action or knowledge-based perspectives.

Participants are encouraged to discuss questions candidly and with respect to one another, engaging honestly and productively in conversations where people may hold differing views. Everyone gathers around four agreements:

  • Stay Engaged. Listening for your partners’ benefit, not just for your benefit. Modeling the listening behaviors that you seek.
  • Speak Your Truth. Having the courage to share your experience/perspective and asking questions of your partners that will encourage them to share theirs.
  • Experience Discomfort. Searching out experiences/perspectives different from your own. Having the courage to ask your partners to ask questions of you.
  • Expect/Accept Non-Closure. Not looking to solve/answer all the questions. Not looking for the solution/answer. Looking for a different question that will help us find a different solution.  

Community Engagement

Bloomberg shared that most recently, the Humphrey School community gathered and used these protocols to discuss matters related to immigration and refugees. “Specifically,” explained Bloomberg, “we grappled with these questions:”

Who deserves to be an American citizen and who doesn’t? Who gets to decide?
How does one speak “the truth” about something when your community does not typically support it?

Another instance of the impact of these talks came from a fellow DCoP member who was present at the conversation held after the tragedies of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile’s shooting in Falcon Heights in July 2016.

She described how members of the Humphrey School community and some members from the larger U community gathered in grief and solidarity in a Courageous Conversation. Emotions were high. Some people were visibly in tears. They spoke to their sense of loss and outrage about the events and about the systemic change they wanted to see.

She feels this model for authentic deliberation and discussion provided a framework and method for addressing these difficult topics. It is “a steadying handrail of sorts” as the University community navigates recent national and local events that have affected our climate.


As part of our Inquiry, we also reached out to Darren Hoff, Human Resource Manager with the College of Pharmacy, to provide a few additional questions from a different perspective.

Hoff wondered about how the Humphrey School measures progress in this area. Joel Mixon, Senior Academic Advisor for the Humphrey School, provided answers.

Hoff:  What are the goals for the initiative and how are they being measured?
Mixon: The goals for the initiative are to provide the Humphrey School with the opportunity to engage in college-wide programs, events and collaborations that support and enhance the school’s mission. They are being measured by student, faculty, and staff surveys and evaluations.

Hoff: What are your expectations for employee action? 
Mixon: Our expectations are that employees participate as they are able, based on work schedule and professional development goals.

Hoff: Are employees being rated or is this incorporated into the performance review process?  
Mixon: Employees are able to speak to their contribution, participation, and engagement in Humphrey diversity and equity-related development opportunities in the annual review process.

Encouraging faculty and staff to actively engage in efforts around equity and diversity is another example of how the Humphrey School is making equity and justice central to their work.

This DCoP Appreciative Inquiry was a collaborative effort by DCoP members: Laura Bloomberg, Joel Mixon, Darren Hoff, Virajita Singh and Amelie Hyams.