Above: Skaters find fun and fellowship at the Parisite Skate Park, a project of the Small Center for Collaborative Design at the School of Architecture.(Photo by Perry Hohlstein)
Equity, Diversity & Inclusion
The Provost’s Award for Excellence in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion recognizes research that addresses societal inequities and promotes social change.
The recipients of the Award for Excellence in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — selected by Tulane Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Robin Forman — were Elisabeth McMahon, Brigham Walker, Robert St. Martin Westley, and the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design, represented by Ann Yoachim, director and professor of practice; Rashidah Williams, former assistant director of operations; Jose Cotto, adjunct lecturer; Nick Jenisch, adjunct lecturer; and Emilie Taylor Welty, Favrot II professor of practice and design/build manager.
Elisabeth McMahon, associate professor of history and Africana Studies in the School of Liberal Arts, grew up questioning issues surrounding race, gender and forms of inequality, partly due to the influence of her grandmother, a civil rights activist.
“She was a prolific letter writer,” said McMahon, who has kept all of the letters.
McMahon heard stories from family members about how her grandmother would attend civil rights marches and bring others along the way.
“My father recently said to me, ‘Your grandmother never let up. She was always pushing everybody to desegregate.’ My grandmother didn’t talk about it that much directly to us, she just lived it.”
As an undergraduate, McMahon studied the history of other countries and then African history and the Swahili language. She began transferring her interests from thinking about systems of inequality and oppression in the United States to thinking about them in Africa. She noticed that a reoccurring theme of international development was to help or “fix Africa.”
“International development was premised on economic transformation of African societies, yet that didn’t happen.”
The recognition that it wasn’t only economic systems reinforcing inequality in international development drew McMahon to researching more about the continent.
“The larger goal is trying to understand where inequalities come from and the systems that create them, so that once we can understand those systems, then maybe we can actually do something to transform them,” McMahon said.
In 2020, McMahon co-authored the book The Idea of Development in Africa: A History (Cambridge University Press). It demonstrates that early discourse about the development of Africa occurred around the same time that theories of racial differences — posited as scientific evidence — emerged.
“There’s this ‘justification’ by Europeans that [Africans] … are racially inferior, therefore we need to develop them.”
After the Holocaust, the terminology used to describe Africa shifted away from one of racial difference but the underlying concept did not change.
“Then it becomes this notion that Africa is culturally different from us, and not racially different from us,” McMahon said.
In her teaching, McMahon tries to help students “learn how to reflect on the ethnocentrism that Americans use in their approach to Africa.”
She is currently working on a book about the women who refused to live by the rules of East African society.
She is also working on, in collaboration with the Amistad Research Center, the African Letters Project. The project includes a database of more than 5,000 letters written between Americans and Africans from 1945 to 1994. The database allows researchers around the globe to digitally access the letters. McMahon said that it’s also a form of restitution to African scholars.
“These are letters written by Africans that are not accessible to most African scholars, and so by digitizing them, putting them in this format, it makes them available to them as well.”
The African Letters Project is currently underway and will be updated at AfricanLettersProject.Tulane.edu.
Of receiving the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award, McMahon said, “It certainly allows me to feel appreciated by Tulane and appreciative of what Tulane offers us, as scholars, to be able to do the kind of work that is important, both locally and globally.”
“Health is an inescapable feature of everyone’s life, and if there is a systemic barrier to it, then that unfairness is worth measuring and finding ways to disrupt.”
In a nutshell, that’s the motivation and philosophy of Brigham Walker, research assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Much of his work focuses on using field experimental methods — research techniques that seek to identify causal relationships in the real world — to measure inequities in access to health care, education and jobs.
Walker recently published a string of studies with his departmental colleague, Janna Wisniewski, on unequal access to primary care. One study found that, compared with White women, Black and Hispanic women were much more likely to be asked whether they had health insurance before being offered an appointment. When offered appointments, they were often scheduled further in the future than those slots offered to Whites.
A follow-on study found that White women were offered appointments most often while Black and Hispanic patients were more likely to be told that their insurance wasn’t accepted despite having the same insurance on average. The findings also showed that discriminatory effects were most pronounced among the uninsured, suggesting that increased health insurance access may reduce inequitable healthcare access more generally.
Walker’s ongoing collaborations continue to identify disparities in other healthcare settings and have focused on patient- and provider–focused interventions that are aimed at improving equitable access. In these studies, Walker said, “We are trying to use these measured inequities to target and pilot new ways to engage with healthcare providers to see how we can narrow the gaps.”
Walker has also examined equity outside of health care. He collaborated with Patrick Button, associate professor of economics at the School of Liberal Arts, to examine differences in access to job callbacks among Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians in the United States. He has ongoing work with colleagues in the economics department regarding unequal access to schools along racial and ethnic dimensions. He is currently working on several projects including measuring patient bias against physicians, differences in telehealth utilization during the pandemic, and the interplay between health, health coverage and financial health.
Through all of this, Walker is “incredibly flattered” to be recognized with the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Award. He said, “I am just trying to advance knowledge in the research domain that I care about and am incredibly grateful to be able to collaborate with such amazing colleagues in that pursuit.”
Robert St. Martin Westley
“We prefer not to talk about it (race), we wish that it would just go away,” said Robert St. Martin Westley, Louisiana Outside Counsel Health and Ethics Foundation Professor of Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility at Tulane Law School.
“That makes it difficult to deal with. I feel that it’s important to work through the issues so that we can realize the progress and the promise of equality and justice for all.”
Westley has both a PhD in philosophy from Yale University and a JD from the University of California–Berkeley.
While he was in law school in the early 1990s, the law was in a transitional phase where many of the gains of the civil rights movement were starting to be rolled back. “In particular, there was a huge attack being mounted on affirmative action,” Westley said. “My feeling was that affirmative action was not something that the Black community ever asked for.”
Westley wrote one of his first law review articles on reparations. To deal with historical injustices, Westley determined that compensation should be provided in order for the nation to move forward.
“I started writing about it (reparations) in part in response to the fact that we weren’t talking about reparations, and when we did talk about reparations, we always seemed to exclude the Black experience from it.”
Westley has been teaching a critical race theory seminar for more than 20 years.
Critical race theory was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia University and the University of California–Los Angeles, and colleagues in 1989 as a way to understand how law has created and sustained race in U.S. society.
“What scholars attempted to do was to try to give an explanation of why, despite the creation of what we in law sometimes refer to as ‘formal equality,’ progress towards substantive equality for Black people and for other people of color in this country has been so slow,” Westley said.
Westley’s next book will take a deeper look at reparations and what he refers to as “contemporary White American memory work.” He is seeking to examine who is doing memory work, their motivations and responses to it.
A good example of memory work is from a New York Times article about a woman who inherited her family’s farm in Georgia. She discovered that her family had owned slaves and that the land was taken from Cherokee Tribe members following the Trail of Tears. (The Trail of Tears refers to the forced removal process of Native Americans by the federal government following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830.)
The woman’s response to this discovery, according to Westley, was: “I need to find these people who were dispossessed and harmed by my family. I need to find the descendants of those people and start a dialogue with them to figure out how to redress it.”
Westley said that he is honored to be a recipient of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Award. He acknowledges the many EDI pioneers who came before him.
“In accepting the award, I also feel like it’s an award to those folks,” he said.
Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design
The nationally recognized Albert and Tina Small Center at the School of Architecture is committed to collaborating with community partners through providing pro bono design and architecture resources on projects that address inequity in the built environment throughout the city of New Orleans.
During its 15-plus–year tenure, the center has worked with numerous nonprofits across Orleans Parish, including Operation Restoration, Parisite Skate Park, Arts Council New Orleans and Jericho Road, to name a few.
In a typical year, the center collaborates with over a dozen organizations in various capacities. Through the center’s annual Request For Proposals process, community partners are identified. Then the center supports bringing the projects and ideas to fruition.
This year, the Small Center is partnering with Sugar Roots Farm for the center’s design-build studio. With sustainable farming as its foundation, Sugar Roots Farm is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to build food sovereignty and community resilience in the Gulf South.” Tulane architecture students and faculty are working with the farm, located on the West Bank of New Orleans, to build an outdoor kitchen for community cooking and plant medicine classes.
Another community partner this year is Covenant House in New Orleans. For this visioning project, the Small Center’s staff, faculty and students are helping the nonprofit organization reimagine its Care Center Welcome Lobby in order to better serve its mission to provide shelter, crisis care and resources to individuals experiencing homelessness and to survivors of human trafficking.
Ann Yoachim, director of the Small Center and professor of practice at the School of Architecture, said, “We see opportunity in all of our projects, whether they be built work, graphic design, urban planning or visioning, to use the design process as a coalition and capacity builder to create change.”
The Small Center also supports local governments through design and planning efforts and architecture firms as they work to embed engaged processes into professional practice.
“It’s about expanding who leads the conversations that shape the built environment,” Yoachim said. She noted that Parisite Skate Park, which won the 2019 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence Silver Medal, stands out in that regard. The Small Center collaborated with Transitional Spaces, a nonprofit organization led by local skaters, to work with the city of New Orleans and see their vision for the park come to fruition in 2015. The center is now working with the next generation of leadership to design an expansion. The park, located at the intersection of Interstate Highway 610 and Paris Avenue, served as a relief supply drop-off after Hurricane Ida.
Outside the annual Request For Proposals program, the Small Center provides other forms of assistance to community partners, including guiding them to other organizations for support.
Yoachim said that Small Center faculty and staff are committed to continuing long-term relationships with community partners. The Small Center’s mission is to constantly reflect on its fundamental practices, especially with an emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion.
“We’re always willing to expand, question and critically reflect on the work we’re doing and how we could improve it. It’s required for change to actually happen,” Yoachim said.