Communications professor is at the intersection of health and social justice


By Laura Sheehan

In a world rife with injustice, Dr. Rati Kumar is tackling one of its most formidable issues: health equity. A scholar, research scientist, and associate professor of Communication, Kumar’s extensive body of work reflects her commitment to social justice and her faith in the power of the university as a hub for change.

It is no wonder, then, that Kumar received the prestigious 2021 Board of Regents Faculty Research Award for the Central campus. Each year, the BOR— which governs the 17 Connecticut State Colleges and Universities — recognizes faculty for excellence in teaching and research. Kumar was one of 19 faculty members system-wide to be honored for “exceptional research, scholarly, and/or creative work.”

Kumar is a leader in the field of Health Communication. Her background in Law (she holds a Law degree from Ambedkar College of Law, India), Communication (M.A. from the University of Florida), and Health Communication & Health Campaigns (Ph.D. from Purdue University) make her uniquely qualified to address the inequities of the health communication system.

“My mentors were the bridge that helped me connect my legal background to health communications,” Kumar said. “I now approach health inequities as a function of larger, systemic inequities, including legal, racial and socio-economic disparities.”

These inequities, Kumar explained, include the lack of quality healthcare, exacerbated by gaps in communication and knowledge. Her research analyzes health communication and campaigns among minority groups in the U.S.; migrant laborers in U.S. and the global south; refugees displaced in South Asia or settled in the West; and children of incarcerated parents.

Kumar uses a Culture Centered Approach to show how health is affected by one’s cultural climate and socioeconomic status.

“Health is a social justice issue,” she said. “This research forces us to recognize the power structure — how it operates and discriminates, and what that does to the health of a community.”

Kumar’s work is forging a new area of health communications, one that blends science, communication, and activism. Health communications in the past have mostly been large-scale campaigns that speak to mainstream society. This top-down approach fails the needs of those who live in the margins of society, according to Kumar, whose research asks us to respond differently, to assess who is marginalized and how, and to tackle the power dynamics.

“The goal,” she said, “is to initiate structural change through policy. There needs to be material support for these communities, not just rhetorical support. Health communications must engage large policy structures in order to serve disenfranchised communities.”

That shift, she said, takes time, but the momentum has begun: “This does not come from me individually, but rather it comes from a collective group of scholars, researchers, and activists who have committed to this cause in spite of the fact that their efforts might not be recognized.”

Colleagues in the field, including Dr. Mohan Dutta, dean at Massey University and director of the global research center CARE (Center for Culture Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation), recognize the urgency of her work. “Dr. Kumar’s work is not just seminal, but a disciplinary imperative,” he says. “She is an important voice of solidarity.”

Kumar’s work is both critical and timely. COVID-19 took hold when she was working with Rohingya refugees in India. Her research immediately shifted to the pandemic-related challenges of the community.

“It made the work more relevant and urgent, but also more difficult,” she said. Among her new challenges was finding a way to stay virtually connected to the refugees after the research team was forced to return home.

In response to winning the BOR Faculty Research Award, Kumar is humble and gracious. “The acknowledgement is personally validating and that’s nice because this scholarship is underrepresented,” she said. “Most importantly, it shows that the research is becoming validated — and that type of attention can eventually lead to change.”

She credits Central for fostering a culture that not only supports research but is also willing to look at the complicated power dynamics of our culture to initiate social change.

“I am only one person and there are so many other great researchers here doing impactful work,” Kumar said. “Central has always made research a priority, the type of research that touches the community and improves lives.”