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Dr. Lisa Merritt, founder of the Multicultural Health Institute
Dr. Lisa Merritt, founder of the Multicultural Health Institute, and adjunct professor at New College

By Abby Weingarten

As the pandemic continues to impact local minority communities, New College students and faculty are partnering with the Multicultural Action Team (MAT) to help educate and protect at-risk residents from COVID-19.

The MAT initiative—funded by a $342,000 grant to Tidewell Hospice through the Manatee County CARES Act—focuses on prevention, education and research. Nine interns/scholars and three professors from New College are currently collaborating with Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute (MHI) on the effort.

“This is a way that I can give back when the community is struggling and suffering,” said Alia Quadir, a New College thesis student who has interned with the MHI since the summer and is continuing to work with the MAT this semester. “It gives this whole pandemic and the series of crises right now a kind of purpose.”

The MHI, founded in 1995 by Dr. Lisa Merritt (an adjunct professor at New College), has helped more than 10,000 people receive direct pandemic-related assistance since March. The MHI supports programs that identify health issues affecting vulnerable populations throughout the United States. And the organization has been instrumental in distributing upwards of 13,000 conventional and handmade masks, both locally and nationally.

“It has been our honor and privilege to care for and educate the community on health equity issues while also developing future healthcare leadership,” Dr. Merritt said in a statement. “We are excited at the opportunity to solidify longstanding collaborations into the MAT, which will continue to improve awareness of health and wellness issues while preventing spread and complications from COVID-19 amongst vulnerable populations.”

Some of the MHI’s community services currently include educating individuals on best practices in multiple languages; assessing the conditions and needs of the community; testing and connecting people to health resources while tracking results; and developing long-term solutions to problems within social institutions and the healthcare system.

“Over the summer with the MHI, I was working on a podcast, interviewing people who had COVID-19, to amplify their voices in the community and provide a cultural, historical context for the pandemic,” said Quadir, who is studying neuroscience and Health, Culture and Societies at New College, and plans to pursue a career in public health. “I also tried to find people who needed food, health or rent assistance and connect them to local resources.”

MHI interns helped track the weekly COVID-19 case data provided by the Florida Department of Health, and maintained a Google map that identified cases by zip code in Sarasota and Manatee counties. They were part of a team that compiled pediatric case data and advised local school boards about stricter protocols for reopening campuses.

New College has been involved with the MHI for years, but the interns currently helping with this work are Quadir, Olympia Fulcher, Charlotte Leavengood, Austin Mason, Perry Spike, Megan Galeski, Erika Calle, Cyriac Versini and Ryan May (an alum).

The New College faculty members leading the project are Uzi Baram, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and Heritage Studies; Queen Zabriskie, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology; and Kristopher Fennie, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology.

The professors are hosting weekly meetings to mentor the interns, as well as providing various perspectives on the pandemic and the significance of community outreach. And students like Quadir are working with the MHI and the MAT while taking a remote course this fall at New College entitled “COVID-19: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Pandemic.”

“For our work with the MAT, Dr. Fennie brings biological expertise and Dr. Zabriskie brings a tremendous amount of skillsets. And I, as an archaeologist, ensure that the historical context for both public health and heritage are really understood by the interns,” Baram said. “I feel a moral need to be involved in this project because people are dying, but also, I want to see how far the antiracist anthropology I was trained in can make a difference in the community right now.”

Baram takes pride in watching New College students engage in such important, culturally conscious work.

“New College attracts people who want to work on changing the world and increasing social justice,” Baram said. “These students are willing to go beyond their own personal struggles and challenges to make a difference for marginalized groups.”

This is certainly true for Quadir.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself by working with the MHI,” Quadir said. “This internship has given me a way to give back to my community that is safe and aligned with my goals for the future.”

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.