Diversity and Inclusion: Reflections

Parke Wilde, PhD, Associate Professor

Dr. Parke Wilde is an associate professor at the Friedman School whose research focuses on U.S. food and nutrition policy, consumer economics, and federal food assistance programs. Dr. Wilde believes that to teach and do research on U.S. food policy means to be engaged with the incredible diversity of the people who produce the food that we eat. This is a philosophy he holds true when teaching NUTR 303: Determinants of U.S. Food Policy. When asked about the importance of integrating topics of justice and diversity into his courses, he explained, “Who could imagine talking about hunger in the U.S. without talking about economics and justice? Who could imagine talking about food production without addressing the diversity of who operates our farms, who works in out agricultural fields, who owns our food manufacturing companies, and who eats our food? To me, addressing diversity isn’t a distraction from what I want to accomplish as a teacher and a researcher, it’s an asset.” Over the years, Dr. Wilde has listened to the voices of students advocating for the inclusion of social justice and diversity into more courses at Friedman. He saw the students’ request as something that was easy to run with, and that fit in well with his own personal perspective.

When asked to share advice for other professors who might like to integrate these topics into their classroom, Dr. Wilde shared that allowing the course to evolve over time is key. “I am continually adding new material. In part, what I do is read all kinds of voices and continually shift whose voices I share through the course syllabus and my teaching,” he said.

Dr. Wilde suggests that professors also reach beyond the classroom. For example, if he cannot or chooses not to attend a certain conference or speaking engagement, he often sends a junior researcher or student in his place. Dr. Wilde views this as a way to reduce the airtime that goes to the most senior researchers in order to diversify the voices in scientific and research settings. “I can’t help recalling that I’m a white fellow!” he said. “So part of what I do is preparing myself for aging out of my own position and encouraging those that are in earlier stages of their career to take on leadership roles.”

Emily Piltch, MPH, PhD Candidate, FPN

Emily Piltch, MPH, is a PhD Candidate at the Friedman School, whose dissertation work focuses on the barriers and facilitators to increasing access to healthy food in the most remote areas of the Navajo Nation.  The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous Native American territory located in the southwest US.  It easily fits the USDA definition of a food desert, as a majority of the Navajo population experiences food insecurity, many Navajo people have little access to a grocery store, much of the population lives below the poverty line, and high rates of nutrition-related chronic disease persist. 

Emily grew up in a small town of New Mexico that was isolated from high poverty Native communities.  After completing her Master’s in Public Health, Emily worked on a childhood obesity prevention program and helped local leaders start a farmer’s market in a border town of the Navajo Nation.  The group had a meeting with Navajo residents interested in farmer’s markets and it gave her insights that she had never before known about communities in the state in which she was raised.  She learned that issues of food security are deeply embedded in social and cultural values and practices. Emily wanted to make sure that even as a student, her work could have impact and she believed the way to do this is through collaboration with local organizations.  In addition to working towards her PhD in Nutrition Science and Policy, Emily volunteered for the Healthy Stores Initiative for the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) project on the Navajo Nation. 

For her dissertation research,  Emily seeks to understand both the history and current mechanisms that have shaped food access on the Navajo Nation and have led to the high rates of food insecurity and nutrition-related diseases. According to Emily, a large portion of people living in the Navajo Nation make one trip per month to a grocery store to do their primary shopping and it is unknown where these families buy perishable food in the intervening time.  Emily wonders if residents rely on small retail food outlets closer to home for these purchases, despite these stores having minimal fresh, nutritious foods.  Emily worked with a local non-profit organization to conduct interviews with owners of the small retail food outlets, as well as with shoppers.  She is currently analyzing the data she collected.

Emily believes that access to affordable, nutritious foods is a basic human right and that communities, such as the Navajo Nation have been wronged by layers of hierarchy and government policies.  Through her work she supports local residents that want to improve access to healthy, affordable foods.  Emily sees access as including the following key components: physical proximity, affordability, and cultural and biological appropriateness.

Emily feels strongly that while outsiders can come into and attempt to collaborate with a community like the Navajo Nation, it is no substitute for being a local with “indigenous ways of knowing.” She believes that if the nutrition and scientific communities could do more to provide training to local community members, we would see more robust and sustainable impact in the areas of food justice.

While collecting data for her dissertation, Emily has remained in close contact with her advisor, Dr. Timothy Griffin, and Dr. Virginia Chomitz, who teaches NUTR 228 Community and Public Health Nutrition.  Emily brings her work into the classroom, as guest lecturer in Dr. Chomitz’s class and brings and serves as a resource for students interested in the work being done with the Navajo Nation or who are looking for advice about forming partnerships with local organizations.  

Oni Tongo, MS, RDN

Oni Tongo, MS, RDN graduated from the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program in 2013.  She is currently serving as a Nutrition and Food Standards RD at The Fund for Public Health in New York / NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

In reflecting on her time at the Friedman School, Oni described the challenges of being one of few students of color, and that there was a process of acclimating to the environment while being present for what she came to do: learn and grow.  She appreciated that there were fellow students who were willing to engage in conversations about race and equity – more than she expected.  The creation of the Friedman Justice League, in which she played a role, gave her assurance that issues could be discussed.  “I was concerned about being labeled – always being the Black student bringing these issues up,” Oni said.  “Instead, I found allies, a network of people who were aware and wanting to have these conversations.” 

Oni also described importance of the greater Boston community in which the Friedman School is situated in guiding her professional development.  Because there is a lot of work around food and justice being done, she had many opportunities to engage, learn, and grow outside of the classroom.  Oni described some disconnect, however, between what she experienced on and off-campus.  She realized how diverse the field really was when she went off-campus; yet she also saw that while a lot of people of color were doing incredible groundwork in the community, there weren’t as many people of color in leadership positions.  This inspired Oni in her on-campus work to prepare herself to become a leader, to ensure her place at the table and to devote herself to making sure that others were there too.  

Oni’s advice to students who are considering Friedman and wondering about diversity is that it is important to take the opportunity to be part of the solution.  There must be pioneers.  This is critical, she says, since the conversation about food needs to consider the communities that are left out.  She also believes that it is also important to consider the types of conversations that are possible. “An institution may represent the ‘rainbow’, but the conversations may lack diversity.”  So while there were challenges at Friedman, ultimately she found it to be a place where both students and faculty were willing to engage in dialogue around food, race, equity, and social justice.