Racial Equity and Community Engagement

Street painted with words end racism now

As defined by our core value of racial justice at the Swetland Center.

We believe...in partnering with the community to build sovereignty and promote environmental justice by sharing power, igniting change, and dismantling racist structures. We seek to enact Research, Community Engagement, Training, and Education that heals historical scars and ongoing trauma of structural racism.” 

While the center has used a racial equity lens in its approach to research design, we felt the need to take a more intentional approach to align and operationalize racial justice more broadly into the cores of our center: research, training, and community engagement practices. Our intentions and actions are framed by a community-based participatory approach to our work, which places community power and ownership at the forefront of our research. 

In order to work towards racial justice, we realize that we must:  

  • Be transparent about our process, progress, and opportunities for growth  
  • Work together with other individuals, organizations and institutions towards a mutual goal of system transformation 
  • Hold ourselves accountable through continuous learning, self-assessment, and change

We recognize the urgency of centering our work within the lived experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities because racial justice is the fulcrum for community transformation, social justice, and environmental and racial health equity.   

A 'Studying Up' Approach
Image of the study up approach: Research, Reflect and Take action in a circular form


Our method of authentically partnering with the community to disrupt structures, systems, and processes that perpetuate racial oppression and environmental health inequities follows a "studying-up'’ approach. 


Learning processes are essential to deepen our understanding of the context and implications of racism on environmental health equity. Research can take on many forms, but includes reciprocal learning conversations with the community, educating ourselves on the history behind racist practices that fracture communities, and how that can play out across the community today. In February 2021, our center was given the opportunity to engage in the Center for Urban and Racial Equity’s (CURE) Facilitating Racial Equity Organizational Change Learning Collaborative. This helped deepen our own learning and understanding.  


It is important to stop and reflect on one's role in perpetuating environmental and racial health inequities. In the summer of 2021, the Swetland Center facilitated a two-part self-assessment process to guide reflection. Part 1 included an interview assessment was based on existing interview guides from the Community Based Participatory Research Model, and the Cultural Competency Self Assessment Guide for Human Service Organizations. We interviewed Swetland advisory council members, affiliated faculty, staff, trainees and community research partners. Part 2 was a document assessment tool was provided to participants of the CURE learning collaborative. These two assessments helped us reflect on how we explicitly or implicitly uphold our commitment to authentic community engaged research and racial equity. 

Take Action

Our goal is to move research and reflection into action. We developed a Community Engagement and Racial Equity Action plan to be transparent about our priorities for translating learnings into practices. The ‘studying up’ approach is an iterative process. We are evolving as we seek to heal a long history of wounds inflicted by perpetuated racist structures. 


Our Community Engagement and Racial Equity plan will guide the efforts of the center over the next two years. It will be refined and adapted by engaging in ongoing reflection and learning.

Priority 1

Elevate support for Black, Brown, and Indigenous community research partners to build and sustain trusting research partnerships resulting in community-driven solutions that advance environmental health equity

Priority 2

Recognize and value the efforts, skills, knowledge, and experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous community research partners to promote shared power in research relationships and cultural reinforcement

Priority 3

Build capacity among leadership, staff, and trainees to acknowledge and address structures of racism and other forms of oppression to advance environmental health equity through system-level transformation

We encourage you to read our full plan HERE

It is helpful to create shared language from which we can effectively operate together.

The terms below are not comprehensive but reflect language that guided the development of our Community Engagement and Racial Equity Action Plan. Like all things in this work, these are subject to change and evolve over time. 

*Anti-Blackness/anti-Black Racism is a pivotal structure around which all racism functions. Conceptually, it describes racism specifically targeting Black people and communities. 

*Colorism is directly related to anti-Blackness, in which people receive privilege for being lighter-skinned and disadvantaged for being darker-skinned. Colorism is present among people and communities from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

Community-Based Participatory Research - “Is a collaborative research approach that equitably involves community members, researchers, and other stakeholders in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths that each bring. The aim of CBPR is to combine knowledge and action to create positive and lasting social change." (Wallerstein, et. al., 2018)

Community Research Partner - “A research partnership between the University and the Community is ideally part of a larger collaboration that includes the interests of each partner and spans a wide range of activities. The University and the Community recognize that they often embody different cultures and missions. Nonetheless, the University and Community realize that combining their unique resources and perspectives can further the goals of both parties.” (Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, 2009)

Community Transformation - “The focus of community transformation is to bring about sustainable change that goes beyond meeting an immediate need or providing encouragement for those who may come to an event or program. Community transformation projects are specifically catered to a certain geographical area and designed to discover critical areas of need. From there implement specific activities and programs that are designed to create a relevant application of positive change to combat the concerns and identified needs of the community.” (Global Effect, 2021)

Cultural Reinforcement - “Being culturally reinforcing is the act of respecting, valuing, honoring, and, celebrating diverse cultures. It is the act of acknowledging diverse group’s heritage, language, lived experiences, ways of knowing, and worldviews..." (Chavez-Haroldson, 2018)

Environmental Health Inequalities - “Refer to health hazards disproportionately or unfairly distributed among the most vulnerable social groups, which are generally the most discriminated, poor populations and minorities affected by environmental risks.” (Gouvia, 2016)

Health Disparity -“Is the quantity that separates a group from a reference point on a particular measure of health that is expressed in terms of a rate, proportion, mean, or some other quantitative measure.” (HP, 2010)

Health Inequity - "Health inequities are differences in health status or in the distribution of health resources between different population groups, arising from the social conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. Health inequities are unfair and could be reduced by the right mix of government policies." (World Health Organization, 2018) 

*Implicit Bias - Describes the bias we internalize but don’t necessarily recognize. This can lead to microaggressions and verbal and physical expressions of bias that aren’t explicitly recognized as racist.

 *Race -A multidimensional, hierarchical, social construction created to concentrate power and resources with white people and legitimize dominance over non-white people.  

*Racial Equity - Is not only a desired outcome or goal, but a proactive process of creating and enforcing practices, policies, values, and actions that produce fair and equitable access, opportunities, treatment, and outcomes for all regardless of race 

*Social and Institutional Power + Racial Discrimination = Racism [System of Oppression]. This social and institutional power is derived explicitly and/or implicitly from white supremacy. 

Racialized Social Group - “Precise terminology that clarifies the category of “race” is socially (rather than biologically) defined and is not an innate individual “property” or trait” (Nethery et. al., 2022)

Social Justice “Is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person. It recognizes that the legacy of past injustices remains all around us, so, therefore, promotes efforts to empower individual and communal action in support of restorative justice and the full implementation of human and civil rights. Social justice imperatives also push us to create a civic space defined by universal education and reason and dedicated to increasing democratic participation.” (John Lewis Institute for Social Justice)

*White Supremacy - A foundational ideology of our culture - an ideology in which the ideas, lives, values, desires and actions of white people are deemed as more valuable, better, normal and good; thus enabling white people/communities to wield the vast majority of power over political, legal, economic, and social systems. 

*From the Center for Urban and Racial Equity, 2021

If you or your organization is interested in learning more about our process, plan or how we can work together to create Community Transformation, Social Justice, and Environmental and Racial Health Equity please contact: swetlandcenter@case.edu.