Olivia Orta

Olivia is a doctoral candidate at The Harvard T.H.​ Chan School of Public Health, pursuing a Doctor of Science in epidemiology. Her research focuses on stress response biomarkers​ during pregnancy and their association with early life adversity and depression. She has also been​ involved in the Chan School’s racial justice activist community, and has helped to promote conversations on campus focusing on the relationship between racism and public health. She holds a B.S. from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and an M.P.H. from Hunter College, both in New York City.

work Student location_on Cambridge, Massachusetts
Activism College Education

Would you be able to tell me about yourself and how you got involved with these issues?

Sure. When the demands happened, I was in my second year of being a doc[toral] student, and of course that’s right off the heels of summer of 2014, when a lot of the Ferguson protests were happening. I remember going back to school in August, September, thinking, “Okay, people here are definitely going to want to talk about Ferguson.” And it was really just crickets. Especially with respect to public health…I just thought that when school started in the fall of 2014, it would very much be at the tip of everyone’s tongues, and I thought that it would be a galvanizing issue for public health, and we didn’t get that, or at least we didn’t perceive that. And the silence was really frustrating. So a few of us friends got together and said, “let’s hold an event that talks how Ferguson matters to public health.” And in doing that, we realized there was room for a group to start out of that that talked about public health with respect not simply race, but public health with respect to racism.

And from that came a very well-attended event, which we were really happy about, because it made us think we weren’t the only ones thinking, “why aren’t we talking about this issue?” So that made us really happy. And from that event, the overall sentiment from the people who attended was, “I would love to talk about how racism affects public health outside of this building and outside of these walls, but we should also talk about it in terms of our own schooling.” From that, we had another event where we invited someone from the Boston ACLU come speak to us about racist policing in local Boston, and after that event we joined a larger conversation about how the school can publicly address some of these issues that our group was very much trying to attend to. And we had a community forum, largely attended by the school. I think over 100 people showed up—it was maxed out to capacity. And even there, the sentiment was, “Yeah, we understand Ferguson is happening, we understand that this is very much a national issue, we understand racism affects public health,” and I think, understanding how racism affected our schooling and our teaching and our experiences here as students of color, became even more apparent as an issue that needed to be addressed.

From there, our group invited other students from a number of other groups to draft this letter of demands. And I think you’ve seen the demands, and a lot of the asks are attention to be paid to enrollment, community engagement…And it wasn’t simply our group, if you see the bottom it’s signed by fifteen other student groups. So, it very much was a coalition effort to talk about racism at the school of public health and in our community.

Where did you do undergrad? Can you tell me a little about your personal work outside of the activism you do?

Sure. Even the word activist, I feel really apprehensive using it, because I have so much respect for the people who I feel are doing so much more work than me.

Undergraduate, I got my B.S. from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, where I’m from, and my master’s from Hunter College, in New York, where I’m from. So this is my first experience outside of New York, which was a little jarring.

How would you describe the effects of racism on public health?

In general, my personal sentiment is, it’s by and large the largest confounder of public health associations that we see. For example, we often see that African-Americans often suffer from the worst health outcomes. And sometimes that’s interpreted on the biological front, or what is genetically different about African-Americans or Hispanics.

Racism is by and large the largest confounder of public health associations that we see.

I would really like to see the conversation pushed more to, not what is happening within Black and brown bodies, but what has happened to Black and brown bodies, politically, economically, socially? What is happening upstream from being Black and brown that is causing these health outcomes? Not just what about race, but what about racism is driving some of these associations?…Racism is an intervenable exposure. We can intervene on racism, you know what I mean? If we just say, “African-American women have higher rates of pre-term birth,” well, that doesn’t give us an intervention standpoint. If we understand that Black women are experiencing more racism, more prejudice, more perceived stress, that’s intervenable, and that’s an important area in public health…

What would you say about the status of race issues on your campus specifically? What kind of problems were you seeing that you wanted addressed?

There’s the interpersonal and the institutional, right? On the interpersonal end, there were sentiments, of “I feel like I’m having racist experiences with people.” And there was talk of, “Where do I go with those experiences? Who can I talk to about those experiences? How are we keeping track of those experiences?” From another end of how I think everything is public health, we often think things are importantly related with data collection, because no data doesn’t mean no problem. So, there was talk about, “how are we collecting this data?” On the institutional end, there was a lot of talk of, “how can we reform how we’re talking about race, racism, and public health in the classroom?”

Because you identified so clearly ways that racism affects public health, and you mentioned some of the frontiers of that are happening at your school, is there coursework available for people to be educated in this? Would you say that is an arm of public health that’s taken seriously enough that students are expected to learn about, and if not, is that something you’d like to see become the norm?

So there are many aspects of that question I’d like to address. First, I want to mention that there are people doing great work in this all over the country, not just simply in our school.

Of course.

Also, you’ll see if you talk to people in our school, I’ve done some talks and orientations where I’ll sit next to a very similar second-year person in a completely different department, and their experiences are very very different. Their classrooms will talk about race and racism much more than mine.

So to give more context, I’m very much into the methods of how we measure things, study design, statistics—my minor is biostatistics, my major is epidemiology, so a lot of my classes are geared to “how do we accurately measure what we say we’re measuring, and how do we accurately report the associations we say we’re reporting.”…I’ve never heard “are we measuring racism correctly?” But that is a question that can be had, because there are surveys that have been developed to measure experiences of racism. There are many of them that try to measure interpersonal and institutional racism. Some of them even ask from the cops. So there’s been a lot of work on that end about, “are we measuring racism correctly?” And maybe that should be more geared toward people who really want to measure that certain exposure, that certain outcome.

Historically, you can’t tease apart race from health outcomes in the United States, given our history.

But I do think there’s importance in talking about racism in other realms of methodology. And a lot of our examples use race. For example, to just say that Black kids have higher lead exposure than white kids, and let’s use this as a biostatistical example or epidemiological example—I mean, that’s understandably just a simplified example, but there can be room to say, what are some confounders to the association between race and lead poisoning? And Flint is an example of that. What other socio-political confounders can we consider with respect to these types of associations? And that’s where I really do think the room can be made for these types of discussions. Even if it’s not simply in a class that’s specifically meant to address race in the context of public health, but also in other classes that assess other types of associations that undoubtedly will bring up race.

It’s part and parcel of what you should be teaching students to do because it’s going to allow students to do the work they want to do well.

Especially if they’re going to be working in the context of the United States public health. Historically, you can’t tease apart race from health outcomes in the United States, given our history. And, I would argue, even if they wanted to work abroad, inequities are such a driver that talking about it fully in the context of what that means is important.

Have you had any concerns specific to yourself about your academic career about the role your race played in your academic achievement? Did you personally encounter any race issues in your own academic career, or in for you has it been an understanding of how this operates more generally?

I mentioned earlier that my experience here in Boston is the first time I lived outside of New York City, and it was a bit jarring for me, because growing up in New York City—I think I wrote a blog in my late teens or early twenties saying I didn’t understand why minorities were called minorities, because we were everywhere. My undergraduate, John Jay College, is pretty diverse. So I definitely didn’t feel like a Brown or Black face in a white crowd until maybe I got here. And I’ve been lucky to have undergraduate and graduate mentors, that really pushed me in these kinds of directions, so I was really really lucky. When I got here I similarly got paired up with a really great mentor.

When I got here, definitely a shift in demographics, and more so than anything, I’ve realized how students of color at elite, predominately white institutions have to be super students. You might have that insecurity that you’re filling a quota, you might have that insecurity of not having a comparable Ivy League background, you’re one of very few, and you also might notice there’s room for race and racism to be addressed in different ways. So, not only are you trying to just be a student, you might be trying to overcompensate, and, to some extent, you might feel pressured to do some extracurricular stuff to help change the place. Not only are you here, you’re working here, and you’re working really, really hard.

We’re just fighting for the same student experience.

My hope for the college experience for people of color is to just be a regular student. I’m hoping my daughter and my granddaughter and my grandkids can just be Black and Brown students pursuing whatever education or extracurriculars that they’re interested in, not because they feel obligated, if that makes any sense.

I think we’re fighting for normalcy, to be completely honest…We’re just fighting for the same student experience.