The Brown Scholarship Program—An Incubator for Extraordinary Ideas to Address Baltimore’s Health Disparities
"It’s risky when you have ideas that you’re passionate about and it’s risky to allow people to disagree with you. But it’s worth the risk because you can grow. And ultimately, that’s the goal.” —Darriel Harris (pictured with Sylvia Brown, left)
The Brown Scholarship
For those considering a PhD, a critical question is often: “How am I going to pay for this?”
For a select group of African-American doctoral students, the answer comes from the C. Sylvia and Eddie C. Brown Community Health Scholarship program. The scholarship provides five years of full PhD funding including tuition, health insurance, an NIH-level stipend and a one-time research award.
Each year, up to three students, nominated by department chairs, are selected as Brown Scholars based on criteria such as their commitment to and potential for leadership in community health and their ability to approach community health in a scholarly way.
Since its inception in 2007, the Scholarship has helped 18 students complete their doctoral work at the Bloomberg School—and supported research focused on improving the health of African Americans in Baltimore and other urban centers, says Brown Scholars faculty director Terrinieka Williams Powell, PhD.
Brown Scholar Darriel Harris’s Extraordinary Idea
A circuitous path led Brown Scholar and Health, Behavior and Society PhD student Darriel Harris to public health.
In the early 2000s, after earning an engineering degree from Morgan State University, Harris worked as a project manager for the federal government and volunteered in at-risk D.C. neighborhoods teaching SAT-prep and math. Working with these struggling students ignited momentum in Harris.
“I can teach them math all I want but, at the end of the day, they’re going back to their homes which are often rife with different issues,” Harris says. The realization that he wanted to focus more on helping children and families like the ones he met in D.C.—and reflecting on his Christian upbringing—called Harris to become a minister. In 2008, Harris resigned from his engineering job to attend Duke Divinity School.
Duke’s divinity program required that students spend their summers conducting service work with faith-based organizations or nonprofits. For two summers, Harris traveled to Africa to work with various faith-based NGOs. When he graduated in 2011, Duke offered him the opportunity to go to South Sudan to lay groundwork for a new health project. Harris eagerly jumped into a feasibility study there, creating a scope of work for health practitioners who would arrive three months later to implement the project.
Six months later, the university still hadn’t found practitioners willing or able to go to South Sudan.
Meanwhile, Harris had been working with a local Episcopal church to make inroads with communities to assess disease burdens for the project. He soon realized that—despite the efforts of several area health NGOs—significant behavioral components contributed to these disease burdens.
For example, Harris noticed families sleeping without NGO-provided mosquito nets, sometimes using them for fishing nets instead. He saw iron-roofed pit latrines dug by well-intentioned NGOs go unused or used for unintended purposes, such as grain storage, while people continued to defecate in bushes near their homes.
Harris tried to understand why community members weren’t following the NGOs’ protocols, but “they weren’t really interested in talking about that,” he says.
What they were interested in: Harris’s extensive knowledge of the Bible.
“They wanted to know Bible stories. ... They showed up in huge numbers—I would come to a place and the whole village would be there asking questions about the Bible.”
That’s when Harris decided to create lessons to tie in health behaviors with the vivid Bible stories community members loved to hear.
Studying best practices from NGOs, Harris developed 10 lessons on maternal health, malaria, pneumonia and other high-burden diseases. He then went community to community, delivering his lessons to spark conversations around health practices using a biblical framework.
Harris began to understand some of the barriers to implementing these tools and practices. A free bed net made for a sturdy fishing net, for example. Reticence to use the pit latrines was understandable when community members explained, “The pit latrine has an iron roof! I live in a grass house. Why should I go to the bathroom in a place that’s nicer than my home?”
But by engaging community members with Bible stories, Harris found that he could explain health concepts, such as how pit latrines prevent the spread of disease. To his delight, people began seeking out some of the lifesaving tools and practices that would lower their chances of illness.
In 2013, Episcopal Relief and Development, a global NGO, offered Harris a job to turn his curriculum into a national program. After he moved back to his hometown of Baltimore to get started on the work, conflict in South Sudan suddenly shuttered the project as funding shifted to disaster relief.
Still, he’d learned a lot and had a new direction for service. “I really wanted to do work around health and health messaging,” he says.
After taking a position as a project manager with the Center for a Livable Future’s Baltimore Food and Faith Project, Harris pitched his ideas of fusing health messaging with a religious framework to various community organizations. Ultimately, he realized his approach “still had the appearance of being something really ‘churchy’ and not something ‘valid,’” he says. “I wanted someone to validate the practice and value the approach as a scientifically viable one.”
So, once again, Harris’s life took a turn.
Shoring Up with a Scholarship at JHSPH
In 2016, Harris applied to the PhD program at the Bloomberg School with a dissertation topic already in mind: a proof-of-concept around using biblical stories to communicate health messages to Christian audiences. He was accepted—and awarded a Brown Scholarship.
“The Brown Scholarship program has been monumental,” he says, in part because it’s allowed him to invest more time in his education.
“When I first applied, I said ‘How fast can I get through this program?’” But with fewer worries about saving money, Harris now takes courses beyond his core requirements, such as sociology and writing classes. He has also been able to take on research positions based not on how much they paid, but on what he could learn and the impact he could make.
Harris hopes this training will help him shore up the radical idea that landed him a Brown Scholarship—one that aligns with the scholarship’s requirements that awardees focus on unique ideas to address health disparities in critical Baltimore communities.
“An especially fascinating aspect of Darriel’s background was not only his ability to apply insights he gained from his Christian ministry work in South Sudan to his current work with Baltimore communities of faith, but his recognition that that these very different places share common values and beliefs that bind their communities together in meaningful ways,” says Debra Roter, DrPH, Harris’s academic adviser.
The Browns gave Harris something else, too: role models. “Eddie Brown was an engineer like me,” Harris says. “He went to an HBCU like I did, and we both … left engineering at a time when it was risky to do so. I get a lot of inspiration from him and [his wife] Sylvia Brown, also. She’s an incredible person.”
Harris hopes to graduate in 2020. His dissertation focuses on investigating whether curricula that intertwine biblical narratives with scientific data are more effective at changing health behaviors among Christian audiences than those that use science messaging alone. At present, a curriculum Harris created in 2013 to increase healthy eating habits in Baltimore faith communities has been used in over 25 area churches.
“I didn’t covet a PhD,” Harris says. “I’m trying to prove the concept and have it understood as a valid approach to health behavior change. I had an idea I thought was worthy of scrutiny, and I couldn’t find another outlet to do that.”
This circuitous path from engineering in D.C. to ministry in South Sudan to working with Baltimore’s faith communities has shown Harris the benefits of being open to new opportunities. “If you put yourself out there,” he says, “crazy things can happen.”
Darriel Harris was awarded a 2018 Center for a Livable Future-Lerner Fellowship.