Summit focuses on health sciences’ role in promoting inclusivity, social justice


Concepts related to social justice, inclusion and equity have become increasingly integral to the academic mission — at Pitt and at most other universities — yet aren’t often directly associated with the health sciences.

Bee Schindler, assistant director of Health Sciences diversity, equity and inclusion, and program manager of Schools of Health Sciences Social Justice Fellowship, sees that changing.

“Health is everywhere. Access to education, housing, jobs, clean air — the gamut of experiences — is health-related,” Schindler said. “As a generator of practice and research, ideally in collaboration with communities, the University's commitment to thinking about the impact of the health sciences in campus-community partnerships is powerful.”

How health sciences is part of building an inclusive, open-minded campus culture will be fleshed out at the inaugural Pitt Health Sciences Social Justice Education Summit, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 28.

Those who want to take part in the virtual event, which is free and open to the public, are asked to RSVP by Feb. 22.

The summit will feature plenary speakers Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, AHN/Highmark’s senior vice president and chief clinical diversity and inclusion officer, and Johanna M. Vidal-Phelan, Pitt clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and chief medical officer in the UPMC Insurance Services Division, along with a range of concurrent breakout workshops led by experts in health sciences and social justice.

“Somebody once told me that health happens in the community,” Schindler said, “and so a summit that dissolves those barriers a bit to see the intersection is a real opportunity for changemaking.” 

The summit will serve as a forum in the “how-to” and the “best-of” for inclusive and equitable campus-community engagement practice, an statement on the event explained. The summit also seeks to conjoin “a culture of health and empowerment activism through substantive community oriented collaborative engagements.”

The idea for the summit was hatched last July, at the mid-point of the inaugural Health Sciences Social Justice Fellowship, an almost year-long opportunity that partnered health sciences faculty with community stakeholders.

“Our team began to reflect on the progression and impact of the partnership and overall fellowship process,” Schindler said. “In our conversations, we wanted to tease out how people land on definitions such as social justice, and how those definitions uniquely present in spaces where campus and community partnerships exist.”

One metric of the Social Justice Fellowship was based on ensuring health sciences is working toward dismantling inequities. “And to rightly do so, we thought it would be an excellent chance to see what others across the nation do within their own campus-community partnering as a means to make change,” Schindler said.

Noble Maseru, Health Sciences’ director of social justice, racial equity and faculty engagement, said the schools of the health sciences view social justice from a human rights framework “that attends to the conditions in which people can be healthy. It addresses equity and democracy — with a particular sensitivity for the most vulnerable.”

With more than 200 already confirmed to take part, Schindler encouraged anyone in the Pitt community to get involved with the summit, suggesting that participants choose a topic they know a little about but “want to push themselves to go deeper, ask questions and network,” they said. “I would also suggest identifying an area that is still full of wonder and engage in those conversations to bring new light and perspective to the participant's skill sets.” 

Schindler credits Helena VonVille, the School of Public Health liaison for the Health Sciences Library System, with helping the organizing team create a program of relevant speakers and discussions. VonVille provided a comprehensive list of social justice-rooted programs around the U.S.

“We were able to utilize that list to connect with universities whose work is engaged in making the world a more just and equitable space to thrive,” Schindler said, including universities within Pitt’s geographical reach and Pitt-based departments and networks. “The depth and breadth of the abstract submissions were impressive. Each of the eight workshop presenter teams brings a perspective that is their own, and a project or program example of how social justice intersects with spaces of equity.

“They seek to impart knowledge while also being committed to discussion and reciprocity,” Schindler said. “Our keynote speakers bring long-held and practiced expertise and lived experience that will set the stage for humanizing the work of disruption and sustainability.” 

Schindler said a “bright spot” of the initial COVID pandemic in 2020 was how it magnified the idea of access, as in the ability to connect to resources and networks and how expertise and services are delivered. The challenges of that period were channeled into action that’s reaping benefits today.

“In 2023, at the three-year mark of the pandemic, we see that processes are changing to ensure that there are areas we are committing to, to eradicate disparity,” Schindler said. “People feel ready, and don't necessarily have the tools and/or network to make things happen. The summit's response, both in submission and registration, show us that this is a critical time to get together.”

As social justice and health are “seeped into all aspects of the life spectrum,” Schindler emphasized that anyone in the Pitt community who has the time has something to gain from the summit.

“We do believe participants will leave with new ideas, including language and resources, and a network for whom to continue to lean on,” they said, “and those aspects can drive the next steps towards a more just environment.” 

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at


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