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Social Work Practice Meets Religion & Spirituality

07.07.2016
Republished from the Arnold School of Public Health

corey bradleyDual degree (MSW/MPH) alumnus Cory Bradley is making a name for himself in the areas of community mobilization and social change—most recently evidenced with an invitation to serve on a racism and health panel.

Cory Bradley’s journey to become an emerging expert in community mobilization and social change can be traced back to his childhood, but it can’t be defined by geography. The two-time USC graduate (Master of Social Work (MSW)/Master of Public Health (MPH) in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) dual degree program) and current doctoral student at John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health grew up in Dallas, but it was the many summers he spent with his grandparents in rural Arkansas that most influenced who he is today.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Bradley’s mother grew up as one of 14 children and only went to school when it rained because they couldn’t work in the fields. She has since earned her own college degree, but Bradley insists that his story began with hers and that of his grandparents. “When someone asks where I’m from, I don’t just think geographically,” he explains. “I also locate the cultural, historical and social oppression space from which I have emerged to arrive at this point in my life. It’s pretty powerful to consider all of these factors.”

After graduating from Morehouse College with a bachelor’s degree in 2001, Bradley spent 11 years as an associate pastor with an emphasis on community mobilization and outreach and community development. Thirsty for knowledge, training, and theory to support his experience in these areas, Carolina’s dual degree MSW/MPH program combined these interests.

“Danita Hall, a premier student recruiter for the College of Social Work, helped me see the potential and opportunity of these degrees,” says Bradley. “The dual program was the perfect blend for crafting my particular approach to my interest areas and my contribution to the world through the lenses of these disciplines.”

Engage Bmore 485During his programs, Bradley encountered supportive mentors through both his social work (e.g., Danita Hall, Frances Spann, Rushondra James, Maryah Fram, and Eunika Simmons) and public health (e.g., Debbie Billings, Ed Frongillo, Lucy Annang Ingram, Stacy Smallwood) programs who helped him further his ideas and encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D. after his 2014 graduation. In particular, he remembers the two interactions that shifted his path toward a doctoral degree. After asking students about their career plans, Fram was adamant that Bradley continue his education. Shortly thereafter, he found himself enraptured by a community health course taught by Billings. At the end of the course, she told Bradley that he should definitely pursue a doctoral degree. “These two interactions demonstrate how significant and imperative it is for professors to be invested in their students,” say Bradley. “And with their encouragement, I had confidence that was something I actually could achieve.”

In choosing his doctoral program in public health at Johns Hopkins, which is located in Baltimore, Bradley factored in how both the School and the city could complement his growth as a researcher and activist-scholar. Over time, he has cultivated expertise in how community mobilization and power can serve as critical mechanisms to achieve social change and create a space for dialogue that leads people to resist oppressions that disrupt health.

More specifically, Bradley engages these ideas in the study of the sexual health and well-being of black men and black gay men in particular. “My interests relate to exploring structural context and community mobilization in public health strategies,” says Bradley. “Currently, one of my projects looks at the relationship between self-reported sexual identity and the health profiles of black men in the National Health Interview Survey administered by the CDC. Another project examines the structure of social networks of black gay men and other black men who have sex with men in Baltimore City and metropolitan area.”

The overall objective of his research is to examine HIV transmission pathways in the structure of one’s social relationships and to consider the association between access to social capital within social and affiliation networks and outcomes of sexual health and well-being. “I aspire to contribute to the world as a co-constructor of social change using the art of conversation, spirituality, and intellectual inquiry to uncover hidden opportunities and resources that promote healing,” says Bradley.

One of his recent contributions to this effort involved participating in a panel on racism and health during John Hopkins’ 2016 Social Determinants of Health Symposium, which was themed “Race, Racism and Baltimore’s Future: A Focus on Structural and Institutional Racism." Established in 2012, the symposium was created by the Office of the Provost to examine the root causes of health inequities in Baltimore using evidence-based strategies.  

Sitting alongside other panelists who are recognized authorities in identifying causes and solutions to health disparities and health inequity was humbling for Bradley. “I was outranked and outflanked and very much a seedling in this line up, and it was a great honor to stand in the shadow of such prominent voices,” he says. “I think that the location of my experiences in the community as a pastor, my orientation and experiences crystallized by my social work and public health training at USC contributed to my credibility to offer something meaningful to the conversation.”

Still modestly uncertain as to why he was selected to join these experts, Bradley thinks it might have been his reaction to the homicide of Freddie Gray in April of 2015 that set him apart. Together with several other doctoral students, he challenged Bloomberg School leadership to join them in organizing an immediate response in the wake of Gray’s death. “We’ve also formed a student advocacy group to develop assurances that maximize the resources of our institution and profession to engage with the community to confront the structural violence, such as racism, in Baltimore which creates life-limiting opportunities and vulnerability among residents,” says Bradley, who is pictured second from left above along with Bloomberg School Dean Michael Klag (far left), Ph.D. student Kelly King (second from right), and Bradley’s advisor and chair, David Holtgrave (far right). “I’m quite proud of my involvement that was doubtlessly reinforced by personal experiences and the training in the social work and public health disciplines I received during the MSW/MPH dual degree program.”

Looking back, Bradley wouldn’t change his path and recommends the dual program to others with enthusiasm. “Just DO IT!” he says. “It’s a major commitment of both your time and your financial resources; however, I developed friendships with an amazing cohort of other MSW/MPH dual degree students, and we still encourage and celebrate one another to this day.”

He also sees the dual program as a great way for individuals who are interested in developing a capacity to understand and integrate theory in their work. “For those who, either as activist-scholars or practitioners, find the nexus of health and social justice compelling and essential, this program is a great way to explore that and begin putting their ideas together,” Bradley says. “I think the dual degree program provides a great way for students to merge attention to social context and macro kinds of concepts with micro realities. There is a harmony to be struck, and blending those training experiences equips the student to resound that chord in their work ultimately leading to the restoration of power for marginalized communities.”

 

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