Centering the Most Marginalized

Donor-funded endowed professorship allows Madina Agénor to focus on improving health for all.
Madina Agénor

Long before the current pandemic brought renewed attention to health inequities, social epidemiologist Madina Agénor was researching how social inequalities, including racism and anti-LGBTQ+ stigma, affect health outcomes—and what can be done to help people thrive. Agénor joined the Department of Community Health in Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences in 2018 as the inaugural Gerald R. Gill Assistant Professor of Race, Culture, and Society. Her position was endowed by generous donors who came together to carry forward the legacy of the beloved and influential history professor who taught at Tufts from 1980 until his death in 2007. Dedicated to promoting equity in sexual and reproductive health and cancer outcomes, Agénor is also director of the Sexual Health and Reproductive Experiences (SHARE) Lab. Here, she shares how her work embodies the memory of a revered professor, the values of her family, and a vision for better health for all.

Many people have told me about Professor Gill—his spirit and his amazing ability to connect, how phenomenal he was as a teacher, thinker, mentor, friend, and colleague. One of my students this semester told me her father had him as a teacher. Her father asked that she pass along to me how glad he was that his daughter was taking my class. People clearly loved Professor Gill and remember him as an inspiring teacher and person. So much so that they were moved to establish a professorship in his name. It’s an honor to be the first to hold it, and  I hope I’m able to fulfill even a fraction of his legacy and what he meant to Tufts.

As a social epidemiologist, I’m interested in how social inequalities—including racism and anti-LGBTQ+ stigma—affect the health of marginalized populations. I’m trained to look at, for example, how social structures and systems like education, health care, and housing affect health inequities across and within social groups. With that interdisciplinary tool kit, we can, for example, trace the through line from structural racism to racial/ethnic health inequities and show how inequitable laws, policies, and societal practices translate into poor health and health care outcomes for Black people in the United States.

My research is guided by intersectionality. Intersectionality has its roots in Black feminist thought and practice and comes from the work of pioneers like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman who tackled both sexism and racism simultaneously. Using an intersectional lens allows me to examine how multiple, interrelated forms of inequality and discrimination all contribute to distinctive health and health care experiences for multiply marginalized groups. The goal of my research is to help inform the development of interventions that tackle these structural and social determinants of health and help advance health equity.

My father and my grandfather were involved in issues of social justice and equity in their own work; my grandfather’s main focus was hunger and food insecurity and my dad’s is poverty. From an early age, they taught me that you should always think about how you can help. How you can contribute to making society better for those who are suffering or treated poorly. It’s an outlook that keeps me determined and committed to the work that I do.

What really matters to me is that everyone has what they need to live a life of meaning and well-being. That work begins by centering first and foremost those who are the most marginalized in society. I think about how much better the world could be if everybody was healthy. We are robbing people of the opportunity to share their gifts with the world if people are sick and unhealthy and dying. The world would be a better place if we could all share our gifts.

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Read more about Professor Agénor's work on Tufts Now.