Black, Queer, and an Advocate for Inclusion in Medicine
A new role at BU School of Medicine gives an alum a larger platform.
As a Black, queer person and a medical sociologist who studies issues of race, sexuality, and marginalization, Angelique Harris (Ph.D. ’07, Sociology) brings both personal experience and academic expertise to her new role as the ad interim associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Boston University School of Medicine. The role involves helping the school create an inclusive environment for its thousands of students, faculty, staff, and the patients they treat in affiliated medical centers. Harris, who uses she and they pronouns, is the author of Womanist AIDS Activism in the United States, and she co-wrote four books with Presidential Professor Juan Battle (GC/CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies; Sociology, Urban Education, Social Welfare/Urban Studies) about the cultural and sociopolitical experiences of LBTQ people of color. Currently an associate professor at BU, Harris previously oversaw faculty development and diversity for the school of medicine. They spoke to us about their priorities for their new role as well as the perspectives they bring to it.
The Graduate Center: What’s at the top of your to-do list for this new role?
Harris: At the top of my to-do list is to make sure that people are more aware of the different types of diversity and inclusion initiatives, programs, events, workshops, panels, trainings, and such that take place at the school. We have a lot of faculty and students, even staff, who are drawn to the school because of the diverse patient population that people get to work with and engage in research. Because of that, we tend to have a lot of programming focused on diversity and inclusion.
I’m also considering ways to make the institution even more inclusive. Right now, when we think about inclusion, particularly at a medical school, the focus is quite often on very specific demographics, like Blacks or Latinx students and such. But one of the things that we really want to emphasize is the intersectional identities that exist among people, including Black people. If we’re looking at inclusion, we want to ensure that it’s truly inclusive of all the different identities and belief systems and ideas, so that people really can bring their best selves to work or study.
GC: How does your experience as a queer person of color affect your approach to promoting diversity and inclusion?
Harris: I understand what inclusion really means. Quite often, people will focus on one aspect of one’s oppression, say racism. Yes, racism is really important, and it’s incredibly important to me, and so are sexism, homophobia, transphobia. Because of my lived experience, I understand how it feels to have a variety of different intersecting identities, particularly intersecting identities that are marginalized. Sometimes different identities will be lifted up, and sometimes I feel like that’s happening at the expense of other identities. Overall, people forget that, regardless of what somebody’s racial identity is, they have so many other identities that are intersecting and give them either certain powers or privileges in different interactions. That’s why inclusion is so incredibly important because we want to make sure that people feel like they’re being appreciated for their unique identities. You need these perspectives in order to provide health care and help people understand that there’s a lot going on with the individuals they study and treat.
GC: How did your Graduate Center Ph.D. experience influence your career and what you’re involved in now?
Harris: I came to the Graduate Center knowing that I wanted to study medical sociology because as an undergrad student I helped teach a course about AIDS and society. This was the late ’90s, and I knew a lot of people who had AIDS. I wanted to come to New York because it had a very high rate of HIV at the time, the early 2000s, particularly among the Blacks who lived there, and I knew the Graduate Center had a focus on medical sociology. I wanted to have the opportunity to work with [Professor] Barbara Katz Rothman. Juan Battle was extremely well known in terms of gender and sexualities, and I knew about the work of [the late Distinguished Professor Emerita] Leith Mullings, a medical anthropologist, who was enormously influential as well.
My dissertation was on AIDS in Black churches. It wasn’t just okay, well, Black churches are homophobic. I was studying Black churches that were aggressively trying to meet the need, and asking, ‘What are they doing? And how are they working with their institutional mission?’ That was enormously helpful for the work that I’m doing now because, in essence, I work within the mission of the institution to promote diversity and inclusion.
GC: Looking back at your Ph.D., what advice do you wish you could have given to yourself at the beginning of that journey?
Harris: First, it’s going to be harder than you think, but it’s definitely doable. It’s hard to explain, but the things that you think are going to be hard are not as hard, and other things that I thought were going to be easier were actually more difficult. Having the time to work on the dissertation was actually pretty hard. My advice is to persevere and stick through it. You can do it. I thought that I could. I was pretty confident, but it definitely was more difficult than initially anticipated.
Also, because I was co-chair of the Africana Studies group, I planned a number of talks and trainings and workshops and panels and film festivals and the like. That experience became enormously helpful to my career. Having those skills, knowing how to partner with different offices and departments, was something that I learned at the Graduate Center.
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An update to this story: On July 12, 2022, Angelique Harris was promoted from her interim role to a full appointment as associate dean for diversity & inclusion at Boston University School of Medicine.