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Microgrant Spotlight: The Activist Lab at the University of South Florida College of Public Health

The Activist Lab at the University of South Florida College of Public Health serves as a resource for students to develop skills and gain experience in advocacy, education, research, leadership, and service. For their 2021 Civic Engagement Microgrant project, the Activist Lab developed a new podcast series to highlight topics related to environmental health, climate change, and advocacy. Join us below to learn more about the Activist Lab and its graduate student leader, Rolando Trejos Saucedo.

Please tell us about your microgrant project. 

Our microgrant project includes a new podcast series, Advocation-Change it Up, consisting of five episodes on environmental health, climate change, and advocacy, delivered through the Activist Lab at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. The first two episodes include public health and engineering faculty discussing the main issues surrounding environmental health and climate change and what should be advocated to improve our future. The third and fourth podcast episodes will feature conversations about the environment and environmental justice with legislators such as U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL) and members of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission. The last podcast episode will bring back speakers for a question-and-answer format about their topics, how we move forward for change, and prepare an advocacy plan.

What are the gaps [in education, advocacy, community engagement, etc.] that your group is trying to address?  

The University of South Florida (USF) College of Public Health Activist Lab aims to address gaps in education, community engagement, evidence-informed policymaking, and advocacy. The Lab has tackled many other topics in the past but decided to focus on environmental health, climate change, and sustainability for our microgrant project, by providing access to expertise from researchers, community partners, and policymakers.

How did your group first come together?  

Dr. Karen Liller, our Director, started the Activist Lab.  She is a professor in the College of Public Health and a long-time child and adolescent injury prevention researcher.  She previously was the Dean of the USF Graduate School, and there began a Leadership Institute for graduate students.  When she returned to the College, she wanted to do the same but expanded her efforts to include advocacy. 

What are some future projects and plans for the Activist Lab?

The USF College of Public Health Activist Lab will follow up this podcast series with an Environmental Health Advocacy Plan for the state of Florida, which we hope can help develop policies, programs, and interventions in environmental protection, climate change, and advocacy. Our future plans are to continue our work in advocacy. A project we hope to conduct is to “adopt a local middle and/or high school” so we can start working with them on learning how to be advocates.

We also wanted to get to know the graduate student leader of the Activist Lab, MPH Student, Rolando Trejos Saucedo.

What have you learned during your project that surprised you?

I think it is exhilarating to find that most guests of our podcast series recognize how equity, and historical and systemic racism, are at the center of disparities faced in any aspect of the human experience, including environmental health, environmental preservation, and the technological and behavioral changes needed for a sustainable quality of life for all humans. Therefore, to tackle the current environmental crisis, we also need to solve our current equity and human rights crisis in the United States and worldwide.

Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?  

Mentorship is crucial to science, especially when you are a Latino, gay, international student from Panama, like me. Gabrielle Britton, PhD, was my first PI and taught me the foundations of research and the importance of representation of LGBTQI+ and feminist scientists. Arlene Calvo, PhD, is the first person who allowed me to envision my future as a public health researcher. Gladys Bernett, MBA, taught me to believe in my role in paying forward the opportunities I receive for others back in my country. Finally, my two current mentors Karen Liller, PhD, who believes in my ability and passion for creating platforms so other under-represented and historically discriminated individuals and subpopulations can aspire to what they deserve, and Joe Bohn, PhD, who has taught me with his example that leadership is a relationship in which the leader allows the followers to trust the person and what he or she stands for.

What do you enjoy most about policy and/or advocacy? 

I grew up in a society where political and religious leaders dictated to all citizens their essential human services and rights. Since my childhood, I was fueled with the passion for creating a long-lasting change that was respectful of human diversity, not only for allowing the rights of all citizens to be equal, but rather their right to be different, and in their differences receive services, policies, programs and interventions that were inclusive and respectful for all.

What advice do you have for other trainees who want to start their own policy or advocacy groups? 

Coalitions start with the recognition that partnerships are key. I would recommend trainees to begin where they are, engaging with professors interested in advocacy. In my own experience, Dr. Liller has become a mentor and an example of the kind of leader in Public Health I aspire to become. Leadership must be authentic, so bring who you are to what you do, do not fear making mistakes, acknowledge your limitations and use the power of your voice.

What do you think is the most important thing for policymakers to know about science?  

To effectively respond to complex global problems, we must address local transdisciplinary solutions.  Science is key and to ensure the quality of life and wellbeing among citizens, policymakers must recognize the crucial role of scientific data to inform evidence-based policies, programs, and interventions. Finally, we should never move forward with a solution that is not grounded in efficacy and effectiveness.

Is there anything you want to share with your community or the readers of the Research!America blog?

  1. If you believe your dream or your passion is too big, then that is how you will know it is worth pursuing.

  2. Compassion is the tool for the change that we aspire to see as a society. We must ensure that our actions reflect not only what we believe but the values of respect and inclusion that are engraved in our constitution so that “we the people” create a society in which we can work past our differences toward common ground. 

  3. Finally, as Dr. Karen Liller would say, “find your voice, and advocate for what is right and true”.

Learn more about the Activist Lab and its work here. For information about our other 2020-2021 Microgrant recipients here.