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Drexel University to open research center on racism and health

Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health announced plans Thursday to open a new center to further research on the intersection of racial inequity and health disparities.

An entrance to Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions.
An entrance to Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health announced plans Wednesday to launch a center to further research on racial inequity and disparities in health.

Established with a $9 million gift from philanthropist and alumna Dana Dornsife and her husband, David, the Center on Racism and Health will aim to advance antiracist public health research and train students and professionals to combat racism in public health.

“All over the world there are renewed calls to address racism as the public health crisis that it is,” Ana Diez Roux, dean of the Dornsife School, said in a news release. “The Dornsife School has a responsibility to respond to this crisis. We are thrilled that this gift will allow us to elevate and expand critically needed research, training and policy work.”

The university did not say when the center would open.

Across the nation and in Philadelphia, the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed long-standing racial gaps in health, particularly in Black and Latino communities — a trend oft reflective of larger social, economic, and health inequalities. It’s prompted calls from municipalities and medical groups, including Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to declare racism a public health crisis.

A report from the National Urban League in August found Black individuals to be nearly three times as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the virus, compared with white individuals. In Philadelphia, Black individuals are more than twice as likely as white individuals to contract the virus, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. And a report in September found that Black patients in Pennsylvania are more than twice as likely to die prematurely of treatable health conditions when compared with white patients.

Drexel said the new center will “focus on structural racism and racial inequities in urban contexts,” looking at the health challenges related to police brutality and climate change among other issues. It will also work to link challenges facing Philadelphia to those in other cities worldwide, as well as form partnerships across the university, including with the school’s Center for Black Culture.

The new center will “provide an opportunity for innovation and impact in addressing the root causes of racial health inequities in Philadelphia and beyond,” said Sharrelle Barber, a social epidemiologist and professor who chaired the planning group to launch the center.

This year, Barber said, “has brought into sharp focus the deadly consequences of racism.”

The Dornsifes’ $9 million donation will allow the university to hire two faculty members to focus on racial inequity and health. The couple are the largest individual benefactors in Drexel’s history, the school said, having donated more than $70 million to the university. In 2015, the Drexel School of Public Health was named in their honor after they gifted it $45 million.

“David and I are thrilled to continue our journey with Drexel,” Dana Dornsife said in a news release. “... [E]specially, to be a force for good in the struggle for racial justice.”