In July 2020, two months after George Floyd was murdered while in police custody, a group of students, faculty and staff at the Cornell Center for Health Equity gathered to search for racial allyship resources online. When they found skills-based and virtual learning opportunities were lacking, they decided to develop their own.
The center has now launched its racial allyship training course, providing anyone who wants to learn to be a better ally with essential skills and tools they can use in their personal and professional lives.
“Many people came to me expressing a lot of consternation and a desire to help and do more to address racial discrimination,” said Dr. Monika Safford, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and founding co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, a universitywide initiative that bridges Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell’s Ithaca campus. “To our institution’s great credit, we have gone beyond discussions and created a tangible product, demonstrating our commitment to actual change.”
The self-directed course, which is free online, consists of four substantive modules: (1) a review of essential historical context to prompt rethinking about race and racism and their effects on society; (2) learning about people’s tendency to make character-based, rather than situational, explanations for the behavior of others known as the fundamental attribution error; (3) building and practicing allyship skills, including tips for introverts and extroverts; and (4) creating a personalized, anti-racism action plan.
Dr. Safford and colleagues engaged many Cornell students, faculty and staff in discussions to design the course curriculum in iterative rounds of feedback and refinement. Alumni from Cornell University Public Health’s Master of Public Health program Avni Patel ‘22 and Nyarie Sirewu ’22 used adult learning theory to build out each module with guided reflection and interactive features. They then pilot-tested it with classmates who represent a diversity of racial, ethnic and national identities, with about half identifying as non-white.
Grace Figuereo, program coordinator for the Cornell Center for Health Equity and the Cornell Hunter Health Equity Research Fellowship, led further discussions with eight fellows after they completed each module of the course. Community partners, including an officer from the New York Police Department and two members of the U.S. Vote Foundation, also joined development discussions.
“We originally envisioned the training would be more for white allies, but that changed after students of color provided insightful feedback,” said Lara Parrilla, co-associate director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity and MPH Program visiting lecturer. “For example, one said they appreciated learning about the role white allies can and should be playing. Another suggested the course be included in orientation for all incoming students, which is a pretty strong endorsement.”
The training takes about five hours to complete. However, since it’s self-directed, participants can complete it on their own time.
“The material is immersive and emotionally and intellectually challenging,” said Zar Metzti, a senior database administrator working in External Affairs at Weill Cornell Medicine who participated in the later stages of the course development process. “We encourage people to turn off their phones and other distractions and genuinely commit to being present to maximize the course’s benefits.”
The course creators also said that the curriculum is not intended to be all-encompassing. They hope learners will submit feedback forms included at the end of the training so they can continue to ensure the materials are relevant and meaningful to people with different racial and ethnic identities.
“From the beginning, we were firm in our commitment to make this training freely available to the public as a resource, and we’re very thankful to all collaborators who made it possible,” said Dr. Safford. “We sincerely hope the course provides people with an insightful education on the historical roots of racism, a better understanding of racial discrimination and actionable strategies for effective allyship.”
The course development was supported by a Curriculum Enhancement Grant awarded by Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2021.