The Freedom School for Intersectional Medicine and Health Justice started in January 2018 out of a series of conversations by medical students Bernadette (Bernie) Lim (right) and Nicole Carvajal (left), then first-year medical students and PRIME-US Scholars at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program.
We came to medical school representing Filipinx-Chinese and Chilean backgrounds respectively. Being womxn of color in medicine for both of us not only was a lonely endeavor experientially, but also within medical education and practice itself. A recent report by the Greenlining Institute reports that only 11.7% of physicians identify as womxn of color due to barriers in structural inequalities embedded within the medical system.
The health narratives of womxn of color are only taught to medical students in regards to "broken narratives" of health disparities rather than critically examining how communities of womxn of color have led and created their own community health programs and initiatives, beyond Western medicine, out of survival and necessity.
Frustrated by the reductionist, biomedical-focused nature of Western medicine, we realized the need to imagine a new type of medicine and public health - one that is intersectional, inclusive, and justice-oriented with a preferential bent towards helping those most marginalized in society.
Bernie and Nicole founded the Freedom School to (1) create community centering WoC in medicine for students and professionals and (2) re-imagine educational, research, and practicum frameworks in medicine/public health.
While we acknowledge the opportunity for healing within a Western medicine framework, we are very conscious of its limits and seek to integrate our training in medicine and public health bridging critical studies (e.g. critical race theory, gender studies, queer theory, etc), community health activism, and non-Western/indigenous healing practices to better serve underserved and marginalized communities.
We are inspired and hope to continue the community health activism work by communities of color through organizations such as the Black Panther Party, La Clinica de la Raza, Roots Community Center, Asian Health Services. Through their example, we hope to continually bridge theory with community to secure justice and health as a human right for the underserved populations we aim to serve.
Since our beginnings in January 2018, over 200+ people have been part of our gatherings and community.
Honoring the Freedom School Legacy
In the fall of 1964, organizers of the 1964 “Freedom Summer Project” created a network of Freedom Schools that functioned as alternative schools teaching the art of resistance and strategies of protest to young people and questioning how to provide a quality education and demanding improvements to the American education system.
Honoring this legacy, we recognize the value of the Freedom School for Intersectional Medicine and Health Justice's mission in challenging the incomplete historical accounts of the contribution of women of color in medicine and public health.
Our Guiding Mission
The Freedom School seeks to:
Create a community and healing space for women of color and individuals dedicated to the intersections of critical theory, intersectional identities, and health justice for all
Integrate critical race theory/social justice into medical education and public health practice
Educate and engage in other forms of healing (non-Western and indigenous) that are prevalent among communities of color and/or marginalized communities
Why center on critical studies and community health activism?
Medicine and public health have included incomplete historical accounts of the contribution of women of color and overall do not center their practices on the narratives and lived experiences of indigenous and non-European populations. These fields rarely analyze how intersectional identities (both self-identified and socially ascribed identities), power, and privilege are embedded in its practices and methods of research. In spite of research on health disparities, race based medicine is still acknowledged by medical and public health institutions. Black mothers are still affected by structural inequities of medicine and have three to four times the maternal mortality rate compared to white mothers. Women of color continue to be criminalized for abortion. The opioid crisis was a desperate crisis for communities of color before it became an epidemic in white communities and was declared a recent national emergency now receiving supportive aid.
Critical theory (i.e. critical race studies, feminist theory, gender and sexuality studies, LGBTQ studies, queer theory, etc) is at the epicenter of knowledge production on how identity, power, and privilege impact lived experiences of injustice and discrimination of communities. Yet, doctors and scientists are rarely in conversation with critical scholars. This has real implications: For example, while critical theorists have put forth that race is a social construct rather than constituting a “natural”/biological difference, public health researchers and physicians often treat race and gender as fixed, independent variables or differential diagnosis “shortcuts” in the clinic.
We are concerned by the intellectual silos of medicine and public health, as this is destructive to the patients we serve, to the foundation of medical education, and limits our ability as future practitioners and researchers to truly heal and gain insight into understanding how social and health outcomes come to be. As Chandra Ford articulates clearly, “public health privileges the authority of data gained through empirical studies rather than the production of concepts that would help to understand the connections between racism and health.”
We want to integrate critical theory and grassroots community activism with medicine and public health to envision intersectional medicine and health justice centered on the collective liberation and healing for all people. We also acknowledge that outside of the academy and medical ivory towers, community activists have incorporated a local intersectional healing approach to issues affecting community members. We as future research and practitioners wish to learn from community-based perspectives of healing to integrate critical theory and grassroots community activism with medicine and public health to envision intersectional medicine and health justice centered on the collective liberation and healing for all people. For this iteration, we will focus on the historical and contemporary experiences of health among women of color as a first step in this vision.
The Freedom School for Intersectional Medicine and Health Justice and its associated programs are generously supported by the UC Berkeley Center for Race and Gender and UCSF PRIME program.