A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Michele Rountree
As a Master of Public Affairs student interested in reproductive health and the intersection between racial and gender justice, I was thrilled to be able to sit down with Dr. Michele Rountree. Dr. Rountree is an Associate Professor at The University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work, and her work focuses on the complex interplay of sociocultural, political, and economic factors that lead to health outcome disparities for Black women.
Growing up in a military family, Dr. Rountree moved every three to five years throughout her childhood and earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Arizona because she was interested in people. After receiving her bachelor’s, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work because she was interested in the factors, structures, and institutions that contributed to people’s well-being. She started out in the clinical track of her program but began to observe a pattern in the people she was seeing in the clinic. “It became very noticeable that many of the people that were coming in were coming in with the same concern. I was much more curious as to what was happening in their lives that was creating a revolving door of different faces with the same issue.” She switched her focus to a macro perspective, investigating drivers of these issues in her research and seeking to address them broadly, rather than on an individual level.
During graduate school, Dr. Rountree worked at a domestic violence shelter when HIV rates were what she termed “explosive”. At the time, the main prevention for HIV was the use of a condom. (Now, people who are at risk of contracting HIV have the option of PrEp, pre-expose prophylaxis, a daily pill that prevents infection.) Given the power dynamic that exists within abusive relationships, using a condom is often not an option for women experiencing domestic violence. At the time, most domestic violence shelters were not assessing women for their increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV. Dr. Rountree’s dissertation focused on this disparity and the higher prevalence rate for Black women in particular.
Nationally, this research has been used to help domestic violence shelters reassess their policies and practices in light of the co-occurrence of intimate partner violence and HIV transmission rates. Now, streamlined collaboration between domestic violence and HIV prevention organizations are more common, and practitioners are able to better serve women and address the multiple risks that may not have been taken into consideration previously.
Dr. Rountree continues to study ways in which programs and services can be improved to address health disparities, include culturally relevant community outreach for HIV prevention. She also studies the burden of disparate postpartum health access that affects Black women. I asked Dr. Rountree what concerned members of the community can about the staggeringly disproportionate rates of Black maternal mortality rate. Her answer was simple. “Show up for Black women.”
At a Show Up for Black Mothers Summit earlier this year, Dr. Rountree helped host 150 people coming together from a place of care and concern. They brought their passion and their background as nurses, policymakers, mothers, and more, to engage in strategic planning in how to keep Black mothers from dying. Dr. Rountree is keeping the conversation going with Black Mamas ATX, a group for Black women in Travis County to share resources with one another to improve post-partum outcomes and lower the mortality rate.
“With some of these issues, I don’t have the luxury of giving up, because it impacts me directly," said Dr. Rountree. "We can’t give up regardless of who is a target of a specific disparity. Our sense of principle and morality requires that we respond.”
As a professor, Dr. Rountree has taken great satisfaction in having the privilege to teach and conduct meaningful research in partnership with the community. “What I love most is having the opportunity to support students and build their capacity to serve, helping them stretch and critically think about things. If there is a recognition of oppression, there is a responsibility for us to do something about it.” When she’s not encouraging the next generation of scholar-activists at UT, talking to women in the community about safer sex practices or co-founding a new nonprofit, The Center for Health Empowerment, Dr. Rountree is happiest spending time with her teenage daughter. She also enjoys walking her two Cocker Spaniels, Princess and Lovely and brunching with friends. When we touched upon the gravity of some of her work, she shared that “it’s not that I’m devoid of the realities of the uphill, but I’m very nourished by knowing that there are many other people who are invested in the movement” of reducing racial disparities in health, among other policy areas.
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Dr. Rountree what advice she would give today’s master’s students. After a thoughtful pause, she said, “Never stop being critically curious about the world around you. There is a place for scholar-activism, being driven to wanting to know and being curious about areas of disparity. Know that there is a way to ensure that the people who are most impacted are not only involved in initiating which questions need to be answered, but also in all aspects of the process and in its dissemination. As a scholar, you can have impact with publications in the traditional academic realm, but you can also be invested in making that research relatable. Work on the issues you care about, but always keep in mind the people you seek to serve.”
More about Dr. Michele Rountree including recent news:
- Op-ed: How Texas can do a better job at preventing maternal mortality (3/22/19, School of Social Work)
- How Texas and Longhorns Are Tackling Maternal Mortality in Texas (3/1/19, Texas Ex Alcade)
Sarah Gonzalez Claytor is a first-year Master of Public Affairs student and 2018-2019 CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, pursuing Certificates in Nonprofit Studies and Women and Gender Studies. Prior to coming to LBJ, Sarah worked in school operations, evaluating and adjusting processes to be more efficient, as well as engaging families in their student's education. This experience, along with working as a case manager with single mothers experiencing homelessness, was pivotal in convincing Sarah of the need for social policy that addresses the intersections of inequality. She is especially interested in policies that affect access to reproductive healthcare, including comprehensive sex education, birth control, abortions, and prenatal and postnatal care, especially for women and LGTBQ people of color. After LBJ, Sarah hopes to work in policy evaluation and advocacy to advance reproductive justice in marginalized communities. Sarah is also the 2018-2019 Community Engagement Committee Chair for the student group Social Policy Network (SPN).