UMBC’s Mercedez Dunn illuminates marginalized voices to boost equity, from public health to the classroom

Published: Dec 13, 2021

A woman with long black hair wearing a light pick dress and neclace smiles at camera. There is a white wall in the background.

“UMBC’s commitment to continue the Postdoctoral Fellowship for Faculty Diversity through the pandemic is one of the reasons I decided to come to UMBC,” says Mercedez Dunn, sociology, anthropology, and public health. Dunn is one of two fellows to join UMBC’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences through the high-impact program this fall.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s selection process was entirely virtual for the first time, but interest in the national program was stronger than ever. The fellowship committee received over 500 applications across a range of fields represented at UMBC and was energized by the incredibly talented applicant pool, shares Autumn Reed, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs, who coordinates the program’s application and selection processes. 

UMBC’s Executive Committee on the Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement of Underrepresented Minority Faculty launched the program in 2011 to support promising scholars who are committed to diversity and inclusive excellence in the academy and to prepare these scholars for possible tenure-track positions at UMBC. During their two-year term, fellows receive a stipend, benefits, travel funds, office space, teaching and research mentorship, and specialized professional development opportunities. In addition to pursuing their research, fellows teach one course a year in the host department.

Out of the 20 fellows who have been part of the program, 11 have become faculty at UMBC. Another seven are faculty at other colleges and universities across the U.S. And one, Kara N. Hunt, is director of education and outreach at Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

A researcher’s path

Dunn comes to UMBC with a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan, but her original career goal was to become a lawyer. Two classes changed her path. In high school, American Minority Relations introduced her to sociology. Later, at Spelman College, she took a course on the sociological imagination that gave her a new way of thinking about social change, equity, and everyday life. 

Seeing her enthusiasm, a faculty mentor encouraged her to consider becoming a sociology professor. “I had never seen any Black people with a Ph.D. before I attended Spelman,” shares Dunn. “I didn’t think that was something for me.” 

She changed her mind after attending a sociology summer research program where she fell in love with different sociological frameworks, including the theory of intersectionality. “Being in a space for Black women in Spelman was really enlightening,” explains Dunn. “Having students and faculty that understood and cared about me as a person and seeing other Black women that were professors motivated me to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology.”

Structural solutions

As Dunn continued to broaden her skills and define her interests, she began to focus specifically on the entanglements of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism in the understanding of HBCU women’s sexual and romantic experiences. She notes that public health practitioners often assume Black college women have higher-risk sexual behavior in comparison to college students as a broader group, and that this perception and labeling are consequences of interlocking systems of oppression.

“It’s important to look at why certain populations are labeled ‘at-risk’ and how those labels reflect racism, heterosexist, and classist practices that impact a person’s sexual choices,” says Dunn.

Limited and inaccurate assumptions about Black women’s sexual practices and sexual health reinforce negative stereotypes of Black women as hypersexual and decontextualize their sexual interactions. Often, they have also historically gone hand-in-hand with recommendations for individual-level behavior change, rather than structural public health solutions.

“Public health is everywhere, and improving health is often broader than we might think,” says Dunn. “It means combatting those larger power structures that set up the conditions in which we live, love, and experience the world. My research, and intersectional work in general, highlights the need for structural solutions for structural problems.”

Illuminating voices

Dunn found critical social theory and a person-centered approach rooted in intersectional Black feminism as the most effective frameworks for her to understand the many systems that support the marginalization of Black and Brown people. “My research centers the experience of traditionally marginalized people and illuminates their voices and stories to understand a collective impact, but also to untangle the issues that affect one person,” says Dunn. 

Her research also gave her insights into her hometowns of Valley and Opelika, Alabama, where several family members suffered early deaths due to social factors that impacted their health. The towns, centered around a textile mill, were devastated when the mill closed during the Great Recession. Many workers had mill-specific work skills and limited education, which left them with few employment options after the closure. This, in turn, led to great economic and social challenges that impacted their health. 

An intersectional approach helped Dunn gain clarity on how the social determinants of health can impact a community and individuals. “I learned that we don’t just inherit genes,” says Dunn. “We also inherit social conditions.”

Student connections

Dunn is excited to draw more students into sociology and further support those already committed to the field. Working with students is something she enjoys. She wants them to see the world in new ways, just like she did when she learned about critical social theory. “I don’t take lightly that me being a Black woman in the classroom can really be powerful in terms of other students who look like me to imagine those possibilities,” says Dunn.

Her strategy for a successful learning environment is to connect with students on something that is important to them and use that to explain complex concepts. “My approach to teaching is to find what is interesting to students right now and connect with them on that aspect of their lives,” says Dunn. “I then use that connection as a launchpad for students to view sociological theories and concepts.” 

“Sociology is about understanding life,” Dunn says, “and it should be an exciting and inspiring process as it was for me.” 

Support for career advancement

Dunn looks forward to continuing to grow both her teaching and research through the fellowship, to progress in her academic career. “We are thrilled to have Dr. Dunn as a new colleague. As an applied sociologist with public health training and expertise, her research centers Black women’s racialized, classed, and gendered relationship experiences within an HBCU,” says Dunn’s UMBC faculty mentor Brandy Wallace

Wallace is associate chair of the department of sociology, anthropology, and public health, and associate professor of sociology. She looks forward to working closely with Dunn and connecting her with additional colleagues and mentors. She’s also excited about Dunn’s future impact on UMBC and higher education more broadly.

“Mercedez’s work incorporates theories of intersectionality, which is appealing to our students at UMBC,” says Wallace. “It also has meaningful implications for promoting equity and inclusion efforts in higher education.”

In addition to the fellowship, Dunn is also receiving support from Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) for her biomedical work on Black women’s sexual health. This University System of Maryland effort led by UMBC received National Science Foundation funding to transform hiring practices and boost the career success of historically underrepresented minority faculty in biomedical fields.

Tahir Hemphill, visual arts, is also a 2021-22 Postdoctoral Fellow for Faculty Diversity, on a new visual arts fellowship track. Read his story here.

Featured image: Mercedez Dunn, photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

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