If topics like physical wellness and mental health have gained public attention over the past few years, it’s a welcome and overdue focus as far as educators Drs. Adeyemi and Darleesa Doss are concerned.
They believe greater awareness is a key factor in addressing the issues they champion at St. Louis University—he as an assistant professor of African American Studies and she an associate professor in the department of health, working with master’s students. The couple took on their new roles there recently after a decade for her on the faculty at Indiana State University (ISU)—she remains president of the Indiana Society for Public Health Education—where he served seven years.
While her emphasis has been on improving health outcomes in areas where Black communities are especially vulnerable—such as diabetes—his attention has been more on the pressures many young Black men face growing up in impoverished circumstances. But they have also combined their expertise, working together on research into stress-related diabetes and “vaccine hesitancy.”
Each was drawn to their area of special interest by personal experience. Darleesa dealt with child obesity and seeing other loved ones face health issues: her mom is a dual transplant survivor. “I witnessed firsthand some of the negative health outcomes,” she recalls. “Growing up, there was always an interest of mine to dig a little bit deeper as in terms of why. Why is it that we’re seeing, particularly within our community, so many people deal with these health issues?”
For his part, Adeyemi recalls being deeply impacted by witnessing the deaths of two young boys as a young college graduate, an experience that left him facing his own mortality. “And then from there, I started to question, how many people have witnessed these things? How many people, particularly African American males, are facing their own mortality, particularly within spaces like this? It took me on to a whole other journey.”
People want to live healthy, but… they don’t [always] have the resources to do so.DARLEESA DOSS
Both acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the issues they research and teach about. “We can’t, of course, ignore the power of genetics,” when it comes to health, Darleesa says by way of example. “But it’s also important to understand environment, right? People want to live healthy, but the reality is they don’t [always] have the resources to do so.” Nutritious food may be beyond reach—either financially or even literally, depending on where someone lives.
Poverty is also inextricably linked to violence, adds Adeyemi. “A lot of times the media may focus on the stuff that they see, the direct violence, but they don’t understand the why,” he says. The why includes “not having access to good quality education, a history of the interference with the institution of the family, the consequence of drug trafficking from the 80s and the 90s… it’s layers.”
All the media focus on violence leaves a mark. “When George Floyd died, and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, we constantly saw images of dead Black bodies… and that does a lot to you,” says Adeyemi. “Not only how you see yourself, but how you see the country that you’re now living in as a sort of battlefield.” In 2021, Adeyemi penned an article for the interdisciplinary journal The North Meridian Review titled “The Burden of Public Blackness and the Promise of Black Privacy,” which examined what it means “to avoid being treated as a problem rather than a human being.” It prompted a multimedia art exhibit at ISU last year exploring similar themes.
Darleesa is glad for how the pandemic made people more aware of the need for health awareness and education. One ongoing shared project for the Dosses is looking into why many in the Black community have been hesitant to have the COVID-19 jab. Understanding the reasons isn’t just relevant for COVID-19, which remains a concern, but for addressing other health initiatives involving vaccination. “When you look at history, mistrust, distrust—there’s so many factors that play into that,” says Darleesa.
Growing up in Gary, Indiana, the Dosses first met in high school drivers class. After earning bachelor’s degrees at Indiana University, Bloomington (IU) (her) and Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana (him), they each completed master’s and PhD studies at IU. They hope at some stage to further combine their expertise and experience, perhaps in some kind of an institute where they can train and equip other researchers and educators.
At home, the couple believes in example as well as education in raising their two daughters, Olayini (7) and Ifé (4). In addition to explaining why good diet and exercise are important, they show what it looks like. The girls became more interested in eating vegetables, for example, when Adeyemi had them help grow their own out in the yard and create instructional videos for family members about what they were learning.
The Dosses also emphasize the importance of positive role models, with lots of inspirational pictures and affirmations throughout the home. Each New Year, they set a series of family goals that are framed and posted in the living room, so those aspirations are always in front of them in the months that follow.
Building a strong, healthy family requires both personal effort and teamwork, they say.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about individual self-empowerment,” says Adeyemi. “You have to empower yourself before you can come together as a union. You have to be healthy mentally, physically, and spiritually.” That means physical fitness is important to them both: she loves CrossFit while he is now a keen cyclist after years of martial arts.
Then it’s important “knowing what your foundation is” as a couple and working together, adds Darleesa. “We’ve been very fortunate to have great examples in front of us… parents that are close to being married almost 50 years… wanting to constantly build each other up…
“We’re working together to be the best for ourselves, together, as well as for our girls because they’re looking to us and we want to be that example.”
DR. DARLEESA DOSS: MY WAYMAKERS
I always acknowledge my parents; they were always there to provide that spiritual guidance that is a strong foundation for who I am today. As a first-generation college student, in undergrad, I had a professor that saw something in me. Dr. Fernando Ona stopped me after epidemiology class and asked if I had ever thought of going to grad school… so, I went on and pursued my master’s. While I was doing that, Dr. Ona said he thought I should go on for my PhD. Along with another mentor, Dr. Maresa Murray, he went hand-in-hand with me, and through their encouragement, I have gone on to do things that I never thought that I would. That is why mentorship is so important for me… They saw something in me that honestly, I didn’t see at the time. They were able to provide those resources for me, that encouragement. Even to this day, we collaborate on projects; we still stay in touch.
DR. ADEYEMI DOSS: MY WAYMAKERS
For me, it would be my mother and my father. My mom is an artist, and I get that side from her. She’s also a heavy reader, so I get that from her as well. My dad [a social worker] was a poet, and he was an activist within the community and still is. Growing up, he had a group where he would mentor a lot of us in the community—you’re talking about kids that are not going anywhere but prison. He really helped change a lot of lives and save a lot of lives. Being around that has sort of groomed me… in terms of my love for helping people no matter what ethnicity or what background you’re coming from.