For many of us, small talk with colleagues is friendly but, well, small. Weekends, work deadlines, the waiting-for-the-coffee-to-brew chitchat. The Agents of Change, however, revel in gently roasting one another about a love of napping or the absurd expectation that a teenage son would help walk a new puppy.

Despite the James Bond-ish name, there’s nothing covert here. The group of seven School of Public Health faculty members enjoy an easy, open rapport when they meet weekly for what they call “church,” a day to write, collaborate, ask questions, break bread together and encourage one another to make social change through public health. Since forming in 2016, it’s been a source of strength and camaraderie for underrepresented faculty: six of the members are Black.

“It’s an organically and authentically designed family of uplift,” said Jennifer Roberts, assistant professor of kinesiology. “There’s so much that enriches the experience of it—I would not be coming unless there was something that really fulfilled me and gave some kind of spiritual feeling.”

Craig Fryer, associate professor of behavioral and community health, convened the group as a resource for faculty members of color to bolster one another and swap ideas. While topics of study like Black mental health, substance use, infectious disease, cancer treatment, physical activity and the impact of the built environment are among the fields represented in the group, Fryer said, “We all define our individual and collective work as sharing a health equity lens.”

Every Friday, Fryer, Roberts and five other SPH faculty members join for a full day of academic writing in the morning, lunch and more writing in the afternoon. “That’s a miracle in itself—the worst day to try to get faculty to come in to campus is Friday,” said Fryer. (During the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has been meeting virtually.)

“We’ve been invited to a thousand different writing groups, and Agents of Change was different—there’s a fluidity with which we communicate and interact with one another,” said Typhanye Dyer, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.

That fluidity stems in part from a mostly shared culture. “I’ve cried in one meeting … I’m a clinician, so I’m always emoting,” said Mia Smith-Bynum, associate professor of family science. “People view tears as weakness, as unprofessional, but in Black culture, it’s ‘keeping it real.’”

Cher Dallal, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, said she’s never felt excluded from the fellowship as the sole white member. “I’ve always felt very welcomed in our group. No one tiptoes around what they want to say. There’s no, ‘Sorry, Cher, we’re about to say something truthful.’”

Lately, the group has been focused on the hard truths of racism during the COVID-19 pandemic and the social movement following George Floyd’s killing. “There’s just been this combustion that’s happened with COVID; it’s fallen on racial lines,” said Roberts. “Also, the racism we’re seeing with the dehumanizing and murdering of Black bodies—it’s all mixed together and you can’t disentangle it.”

In June, the group published an op-ed on Medium urging the public to consider the killings of unarmed Black people a public health crisis on par with any other medical issue. “For me, (the op-ed) just said the fight is still on,” said James Butler III, associate professor of behavioral and community health. “I’m more encouraged now to fight against injustices.” 

The group also points to a variety of reasons for the racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths. People of color “are more likely to be exposed … because they’re often the ones out on the front lines, in these essential workspaces and roles,” said Devlon Jackson, assistant research professor of behavioral and community health. “They’re the ones more at risk than those who have the privilege to work from home.” 

Other strategies for preventing COVID-19 are also perceived as less accessible to people of color. Wearing a mask, said Jackson, may create a concern for some African Americans, who worry that “people may not see them as wearing protective gear but as a threat, due to stereotypes.”

The Agents of Change—whose name was chosen for the members’ interest in reimagining public health work and research—feel a measure of optimism in this bleak historical moment that the crises of our times could change the profile and perception of the discipline.

“People are now saying, ‘Oh, I get why you would define yourself as a health equity investigator or health disparities researcher,’” said Fryer.