Introduction to the Third Annual Advocacy Letter Series


In the coming weeks, the third annual Advocacy Letter Series will feature 22 student letters that call for change on a wide range of health topics, including ageing care, sexual assault response, and moral injury amongst medical professionals. These student letters were written this year during the module I teach at UCL called Aspects of Applied Medical Anthropology, which introduces students to the possibilities and challenges of applying medical anthropology, and for the Advocacy Letter assessment, which invites students to draw on anthropological insights to critique current global and public health approaches and to advocate for new, more experience-centred health interventions. To learn more about the module and the assessment, see my introductions to the first and second annual Advocacy Letter Series.

This year, I aligned the Advocacy Letter assessment with UCL’s Eugenics Legacy Education Project (ELEP). Because of this, many of the letters in this third annual Advocacy Letter Series focus on eugenics and its impact on health today. While UCL has a progressive institutional history – it was the first UK University to admit students regardless of their religion and one of the first to admit women– it was also home to some of the most influential eugenicists in the 20th century who perpetuated racist, classist, and ableist logics in their research, including Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and Marie Stopes. UCL’s Eugenics Legacy Education Project aims to increase awareness of the institution’s involvement in eugenics and to generate ways for the institution to redress its history. In line with the ELEP aims, I received a UCL ChangeMakers grant to teach students in the Aspects of Applied Medical Anthropology module about eugenics and to invite them to use the Advocacy Letter assessment to explore how UCL can account for their involvement in the movement.

Several students in the module chose to align their Advocacy Letters with the ELEP project. For example, one student explored how discourses around reproductive carrier screenings often further ableist eugenics logics and called for timely ethical discussions during technological development. Another student wrote to UCL’s Provost Michael Spence to explain how the institutional silence around UCL’s involvement in eugenics leads to poor mental health amongst racialised students and advocated for the institution to be more transparent and proactive about their institutional past.  

Students not only wrote their letters on the afterlives of eugenics, but they also designed, participated in, and edited a video that explores their experience using the Advocacy Letter Assessment to work with the Eugenics Legacy Project. This video will be used as a Cross-Faculty educational video to encourage other departments  and faculty members at UCL to integrate its eugenics legacy into their teaching and assessment. The students involved in this ChangeMakers project said that, while it was harrowing to learn of UCL’s support of eugenicists, they believed good institutional citizenship demanded not only that they be aware of this history but also that they work to help their institution take responsibility for it. These students also reported feeling empowered leveraging their anthropological toolkits to fight for change.

The alignment of the Advocacy Letter assessment with the ELEP project confirms what I have learned after three years of integrating this assessment into my module: students are hungry to use their education to make a difference. Our anthropological training prepares students to examine the world critically and to call out the various injustices that hamper the diversity of human flourishing globally. The Advocacy Letter assessment asks students not only to analyse these injustices, but also to generate ways to overcome them. In writing these letters, then, students sharpen their critical voice as well as their hopeful imagination, and learn they do not simply inherit the world, but have the opportunity to shape it.

In the context of growing inequality, environmental crises, and global violence, student empowerment is especially necessary. I have shared many conversations with students who fear and feel paralysed by the troubles of the world. Students are not alone; amidst ongoing strikes in higher education in the UK, I have shared many conversations with faculty who are struggling to maintain faith in the power of education in the context of increasing sector crises, including rampant marketisation.

We all need educational practices that activate and inspire. For the past three years, I have found that these letters act as a balm: students find the practice of writing them empowering, and fellow staff and I have found inspiration in students’ novel use of anthropology in their clear-eyed interventions. These letters act as a reminder to me of the liberatory power of the classroom, especially in moments of crisis. I hope you too will feel recharged by these students’ powerful calls for change.   Image Source: Pixabay

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