Last week, University of Washington School of Public Health (UW SPH) faculty Rabi Yunusa took seniors from the public health–global health major to a middle school in Seattle. They were there for their senior capstone project, to share an opportunity for Black immigrant middle schoolers to join an after-school program where students could get homework help, eat dinner, learn about their cultural heritage and stay until their parents could pick them up after work.
While hundreds of middle-schoolers milled about the cafeteria where the college seniors had set up information tables, fewer than 20 approached to learn more. The seniors were surprised — Why didn’t more people want to learn about the program? Their surprise was an important lesson Yunusa wanted her students to learn: Not all public health work receives the reaction students think it will. To understand why, students need to engage with the community to understand their perspectives.
“You can’t just sit in an office and write rules that will impact real people and expect a certain reaction,” Yunusa said. "It's our job in public health to get out there into the community and think about who we are not seeing, why are we not seeing that person, and how can we show up for that person?”
Yunusa, who is an assistant teaching professor of Global Health and Health Systems and Population Health, has made community-based work central to everything she does as a faculty at SPH. For her work, she received the 2024 Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award. Given annually by the UW Health Sciences schools and UW Medicine, this award honors individuals or groups who exemplify Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principles through commitment to addressing community needs, particularly communities of color and low income; development and implementation of significant programs to improve the human condition; and outstanding efforts to protect and empower all individuals.
Yunusa is a close partner of communities both in and out of the UW and is described by peers as “a cornerstone of our community, a source of inspiration and strength for all of us.” Yunusa is integral to the School’s equity, diversity and inclusion committees, and connects faculty of color with support. She serves as a faculty mentor to the International Student Survival and Success Program, advising their work on building community for international students, particularly those from the School’s global south partners. Whenever students have a need, from health care to letters of recommendation, she steps in to support them.
Her research interests in public and global health stem from her lived experiences of being affected by structural and social violence. Her work focuses on the negative role of stigma on the health of people living with HIV and their families, and violence against women and girls, particularly in resource limited settings.
Here, Yunusa shares the principles that make up her vision of community-based public health work and shares why service, public health and joy are all connected.
As a recipient of the MLK community service award, how do you view the concept of service as a part of your work in global health and in the School of Public Health?
Service changes everything. Service is beyond giving back. When you see your work from the service lens perspective, you're beginning to see people. Our work in public health and global health, a lot of it is service work just by our intention. You are more likely to stay and do the work if you have a service-oriented perspective versus seeing it as, “this is my paycheck and job.”
With service, you can see, what am I also gaining from this person that I am serving? It's not like, oh, I'm just here, I'm just giving, and I'll go away. There's no soul in that. With service, you can see that this person that you’re trying to serve is giving up so much to accept this. They are trusting you. They're giving you decision powers. Although they have autonomy, you have more education about the things that you're talking about, so they're trusting you to accept your treatment. It's massive, this trust they are giving you. You are probably giving 30 minutes of your time, which is so much, you'll think. But it's a lot mentally for this person to see someone that they don't know, listen to them, accept whatever this person is saying, and give their body.
Today in global health, we started the first ever mass vaccination of children against malaria in Cameroon, for infants as young as six months old. So, the baby doesn't even know what you're doing. You are probably going to make the baby cry with your shot, it's supposed to be four jabs to complete the vaccination. But this community is giving up their babies for something that is 36% successful and can prevent one in three deaths. But it's a massive thing that they're saying, here's my precious baby, and I want you to give this person this jab and you're saying it is safe. It's a massive sacrifice that this person is doing for you. Everything that we do in global health and in public health speaks to real life and real people. It's going to have real world impact. It's important we remember that.
Can you share more about your work in health equity and education for women and girls? What impact from your work in this area has been important to you?
I remember myself as a girl, so I am very focused on seeing who are the girls that I'm working with and how can I uplift them and mentor them. If you're a girl or a woman, and you're in community, I see you. I see you getting marginalized. I recognize that because I remember myself.
I work with a foundation in Nigeria, TAWA Health Foundation and we work with women and girls surviving violence to rebuild their lives. There are many aspects of any culture that are wonderful and great, but there are also other aspects that are violent. We try to remove the women and girls from the violent situations. Most of them are out of the violent situation, but they are more likely to go back if there is no support. We bring them in, we engage them, and we give them a few classes. Our first class sometimes is just women figuring out their own name and getting that freedom of identity. We also teach basic bookkeeping classes, but not that they need it (Where I'm from, all mothers automatically know how to do all the math because you get this little amount of ingredients to produce much larger amounts of food). So, we leverage that concept to show them that this is what you need to do, and then you can liberate yourself.
I've been on the EDI committee of Everett Public Schools for more than two years. I listen to what they're saying, am responsive to their surveys, and give input. It's different being a Black girl, being a white girl or being a girl from another ethnicity. Maybe this girl, this Black girl, is at home the whole time by herself after school because her parents have to make a living for this child. The work is about being that voice and reminding people in the room, “hey, have you thought about it this way?” In the case of how hair has to look a certain way at school, have you thought about how hard it is for a Black girl to make her hair look that way? And what kind of message are we sending? So being there, advocating for them, and if they need you as a voice, seeing them and bringing that in.
What is some of the work you do in the School of Public Health that helps build community?
Last year, in the Departments of Health Systems and Population Health and Global Health, we held the first Iftar for the Muslim community (the meal to break fast during Ramadan). All students, staff and faculty were invited, and we held it on the 8th floor of the Hans Rosling Center. Part of Iftar is that Muslims will break their fast, but they will also pray in public or if they're at home. There were a few of us, so we prayed right there on the floor. People appreciated seeing that because some had never seen Muslims pray and they're like, “Oh we didn't know that was how it was,” and I said, yeah, it's quite simple and not super special. But the Muslim girls felt seen, validated and comfortable. They said that their friends after that told them, “We understand you a little bit better, and we see you and now we understand your faith versus before all we see is you wearing this hijab.”
You cannot be in community with people you don't know. The whole definition of community is a group of people with shared values, ideas and identities. We're in this multi-identity, multi-value society. But who says we can't be together? Show your authentic self and people begin to understand you. People begin to identify all the ways in which you and them can form community and coexist peacefully. Everybody will be healthy together because now I've shared with you what I'm doing, and deepened your understanding, so there's no reason for you to be afraid of me.
What work are you doing as faculty at the School of Public Health that is most exciting for you right now?
The service-learning capstone for public health-global health undergraduates is the highlight of my year. Under the mentorship of other faculty before me in the capstone, Anjuli Ganti and Kate West, we're all in this sisterhood together, and we're just trying to promote that work of service. We work with the seniors and for some of them, this is one of their last classes before they graduate. This is our last chance to expose these young minds to what community means and how they can be in service and derive joy, because when they graduate, we want them to be successful. We don't want them to be out there thinking “I can't deal with this, is this real life?” Showing them how to get that joy, test the waters here, will ultimately be better.
At SPH, I’m continuing to be part of these DEI committees to show people how they are vital in promoting, understanding and bringing visibility to things that we all take for granted or forget. It's only the marginalized that know they're marginalized. 80% of the time, most people are just like, “I'm just going to do my normal life,” and it’s no fault of anyone. We have DEI committees, at the School of Public Health, in every department and at the leadership level. The work of EDI leadership like Victoria Gardner and Ahoua Kone, SPH leadership including Juanita Ricks and Dean Hilary Godwin, and the various DEI committees working with them. They work together, promoting the same ethos, bringing visibility, togetherness and unity to our School. And I think we are better for it.
We're so fortunate to have leadership that supports this kind of work. You keep reading on the news that there are other schools that are not having as much freedom to do the work that they are supposed to do, or they want to do even if their students are demanding that work, so having leadership like Dean Godwin is really important. This is the perfect time and space to be able to do tangible work that will affect the lives of people when our students are in the real world, not just in our bubble at the UW.