By MARTY LEVINE
“In one sense I came full circle when I came back,” says Mario C. Browne, now in his second stint at the University.
After spending 2002-09 at Pitt as project director and community health coordinator for the Center for Minority Health (now the Center for Health Equity), Browne returned in 2011 as the director of diversity for the Schools of the Health Sciences.
Born and raised in the Hill District, Browne spent his first years at the University bringing Pitt programs and people closer to his old neighborhood and other city sites. At the Center for Health Equity, he helped to pioneer the idea of taking Pitt services to black barbershops and salons, teaching their personnel how to give customers preventive advice about illnesses common in the African-American community, such as diabetes. The center also brought in Pitt personnel to offer in-store blood pressure and other testing and eased the way for Pitt researchers to build trust and solicit community participation in current studies.
“A lot of the work we did, I think, laid the groundwork for what we’re doing with the community engagement centers now (in Homewood and the Hill District),” Browne says.
Browne’s own wellness habits center on bicycling, and he was one of six founders of the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club a dozen years ago, which promotes cycling to the inner city, taking young people on weekend bike rides to instill healthy habits and giving bicycles to kids.
After spending just a few years away from Pitt to run the Allegheny County Health Department’s chronic disease programs, Browne felt it was time to return: “I really missed the University — the stimulation here, the opportunities to learn from so many people.”
Having focused on bringing health programs to a more diverse group of city residents previously, Browne would now aim to bring diversity to the faculty and staff of Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences. It’s no coincidence that, during his first Pitt job, his center had examined why there aren’t enough women and racial and other minorities in the health professions. Pitt’s administration studied this conundrum, and the result was a recommendation to create the very office Browne now heads.
“I really came back approaching the whole health disparity issue from a different perspective,” he says. Part of his job now is to make sure the schools are including cultural competency in the curriculum. His office conducts a lot of cultural competency training for health sciences faculty. “We really like to call it ‘cultural humility,’ ” he says, “because no one can be truly culturally competent in all cultures.”
Having five generations of people in the current workforce doesn’t make his job easier, he points out: “We’re all going to make mistakes. I think we need to have more open and honest dialogue. It’s not debating about who is right or wrong. It’s about listening and understanding.
“We need to sit in a room and ask the real hard questions, instead of pretending they don’t exist,” he explains. “We have to have real conversations. We need to surface the tension in a controlled way. When we can work through the tension, maybe we can move forward.
“It’s not just about knowing each other, it’s about knowing yourself,” he adds, “the way that we service our patients and clients, the way we deal with our students.”
Pittsburgh is not one of the most diverse American cities, “but there is a lot of diversity and perspectives (at Pitt),” Browne says. “Knowing that we have a lot of work to do yet, there is a feeling of movement” toward seeing more women, more people of color, and more members of varied religious groups in the health care professions — from entry-level jobs on up.
That will help to attract more students, staff and faculty from different backgrounds, Browne believes: “I know students who made decisions not to come because they don’t see themselves. We’ve got work to do.”
Browne hasn’t stopped working on himself, either; he has just finished the first year of a doctoral program in the School of Education, “to learn more about how universities work,” he says. What will it lead to? “I don’t know, actually,” he says. “I want to just keep doing the work of diversity, inclusion and equity.
“We always say the idea is to work yourself out of a job” — aiming for a time, he says, when “we no longer see those disparities, whether they are in education, housing, wealth. It’ll just be our way of being. I don’t think that’s necessarily unreasonable. I think we can get to a place where that’s our core values. When we get there, I can go retire and ride my bicycle.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.