Rachel Berkowitz Wants Everyone to Thrive
No two love stories are ever the same. Rachel Berkowitz’s love for public health, for example, began as a high-schooler in South Florida, when she worked on a project that asked students to establish a hypothetical mobile tuberculosis unit in Miami.
“We had to do all the research, figure out what was already existing, and how it would connect to things,” she remembers. “And I just fell in love with that, the necessity to reflect and engage with so many different groups of people to figure it out.”
Berkowitz, assistant professor of public health, has been at SJSU since 2021, but her community-based public health focus goes back much further. As an undergraduate, she majored in cultural anthropology, and her master’s thesis at Emory University focused on a project in Nairobi, Kenya, in which she collaborated with community researchers to understand the networks of organizations working to improve the quality of community life within an informal settlement (her preferred term for what others refer to as a “slum”) called Mukuru.
Love strikes twice
When Berkowitz came to SJSU, she fell in love again.
“What really resonates with me is that it’s a teaching-centered institution, grounded in its community,” she says. “I also love the centrality of social justice and equity in the public health and recreation department and the fact that SJSU is finding new ways to support research. The ability to be in classrooms with the next generation of public health leaders and also do research that I can connect to is just really an amazing opportunity.”
She’s currently working with Vicky Gomez, assistant professor of public health, on several community-based research projects, including a “qualitative study in support of a health equity agenda” in Santa Clara County. She and Gomez conducted focus groups and interviews with Santa Clara County residents and stakeholders to “understand the health equity priorities of the county.”
Her research at SJSU builds on efforts first started when she came to California and worked at and with various organizations, including Highland Hospital in Oakland, where she partnered with primary care providers, interpreters, staff, and English-, Spanish-, and Mien-speaking patients to develop a patient-centered primary care council.
“The purpose of this multilingual council was both to provide input on changes being proposed in the Adult Medicine Clinic at Highland Hospital and to surface issues that needed to be addressed, particularly centering patients’ experiences,” she explains.
She also received her doctorate of public health (DrPH) at UC Berkeley, where she studied “the relationship between neighborhood quality and risk of preterm birth among Black women in Oakland.” And during a postdoctoral fellowship with UC Berkeley and the Sutter Health Center for Health Systems Research, she continued her work with projects that researched “inequities in severe maternal morbidity” as part of the Carmichael Lab at Stanford Medicine and explored Sutter Health patient, provider, and leadership experiences with the use of telehealth for prenatal and postnatal care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another main focus of Berkowitz’s research is applied research, and specifically the discipline of evaluation, which is just what it sounds like: the field of study focused on understanding whether a new idea, program or implementation is working.
“We use evaluation all the time,” Berkowitz says. “When you’re doing performance reviews, that’s evaluation. Any time you do a series of workshops and you take attendance and you pay attention to who shows up one week but not the next, that’s monitoring, which is also part of evaluation. Evaluation is fundamental.”
Berkowitz is currently working with Gomez and colleagues at Stanford Medicine’s Office of Community Engagement to develop a participatory evaluation strategy for Sobrato Philanthropies’ Silicon Valley Program. This essentially means that all the community stakeholders who are part of funded efforts (residents, clients, staff) will be part of the process of developing and implementing the evaluation of the initiative, leading to approaches grounded in community priorities.
Berkowitz also recently became an American Evaluation Association Minority Serving Institution Fellow, which will help further her evaluation projects. She was honored by the award, especially because it centers culturally responsive and equitable evaluation (CREE), which the AEA describes as “an approach that incorporates cultural, structural, and contextual factors (e.g., historical, social, economic, racial, ethnic, gender) using a participatory process that shifts power to individuals most impacted.”
The fellows meet regularly over Zoom to discuss their ongoing learning and projects and are also offered professional development opportunities and support. As part of her main fellowship project, Berkowitz plans to incorporate CREE into her teaching at SJSU.
And like any true romantic, she wants others to fall in love with public health, too.
“Public health is fundamental to existing as a human being,” she says. “My health matters for your health. Your health matters for my health. We need all the gifts that folks with different passions can bring to realize the vision of a world in which we can all maintain wellness in a just and equitable society.”