Fung Fellowship: Training the innovators we need to solve today’s most pressing problems

By Lorraine Meriner Pereira, Fung Fellowship ‘20

Lorraine Pereira is a 2020 alumna of the Fung Fellowship and UC Berkeley, where she majored in Public Health and minored in Global Poverty & Practice. Here, she reflects on how the fellowship’s pedagogical approach equips undergraduates with many of tools and frameworks historically used in the pursuit of social justice, and how the fellowship fits into the trajectory of positive social change.

Between the ongoing pandemic, the continual obstruction of justice for Black lives, and the mis- and disinformation spreading even faster than the flames that engulfed our nation’s west coast, 2020 has exposed the brokenness of the systems designed to serve the United States. Unfortunately, much of our current education system does not prepare us to tackle these pressing problems: rather, as argued by Paulo Freire, a conventional education treats students as storage units in which information is deposited, regurgitated for exams, and repeated, so as to render creativity obsolete (Freire 1970).

How, then, can students be equipped to move beyond the status quo and repair the systems that continue to crack under the pressure of growing inequality? Look no further than the example provided by the Fung Fellowship, a program that seeks to train our nation’s next bridge-builders, change makers, and social justice advocates.

Lorraine and her Year 1 Fung Fellowship cohort at their bootcamp in 2018.

Innovation as an exercise in imagination

The systems and institutions of our world often render us too apolitical, disengaged, or hopeless to believe in the possibility of a more just and equitable future (Brown 2006). But change cannot be enacted if it cannot be imagined in the first place. Indeed, activists and organizers around the world engage deeply in the process of imagination as they unlearn what they once believed was impossible.

Likewise, through its many design challenges, the Fung Fellowship challenges students to imagine what ‘could be.’ The program implores students to imagine a nation where health and wellbeing are not distributed on a social gradient, and to channel their own unique skills and backgrounds to forge that nation. In essence, the fellowship enables fellows to merely see themselves as capable of envisioning and enacting social change.

“In essence, the fellowship enables fellows to merely see themselves as capable of envisioning and enacting social change.”

Further, the fellowship boldly encourages students to reimagine technology as a vehicle for social good and social change. In response to tech’s increasingly apparent role in creating social inequality (Eubanks 2018), the fellowship encourages students to reclaim technology to serve communities otherwise vulnerable to its ills. This type of reimagination is at the heart of the Afrofuturistic and Indigenous Futuristic movements; the art, literature, and philosophies of these movements serve as a blueprint for a more egalitarian future, one where technology serves as a tool for liberation rather than oppression. In equipping fellows with the skills to enact the incremental changes necessary to alter the current trajectory of technology, the fellowship expresses its allyship with movements who have long imagined and advocated for more equitable technologies, and a more equitable future.

Cover art for Octavia’s Brood by John Jennings, a collection of short science fiction stories inspired by the late Afrofuturistic writer Octavia Butler.

Co-creation as an exercise in allyship

Whereas the terminologies used in Human Centered Design (HCD) and community organizing circles are different, their goals are very much aligned: both aim to ensure that policies, systems, and institutions serve the needs of those who use and experience them. HCD is at the core of the fellowship’s pedagogy, and clearly draws upon the tools social justice advocates have long used to fight for change; the participation of impacted communities in decision-making and design processes has produced valuable reforms in labor rights, urban planning (Fung and Wright 2001), and namely, health outcomes (Corburn 2005).

In recent years, the biggest changes in public health practice have stemmed from quantitative analyses; while training ordinary citizens to collect data has proven to yield data and insights otherwise impossible for professional scientists to discern (Silvertown 2009), quantitative analysis remains largely inaccessible to the broader public. In our increasingly quantitative world, the fellowship pushes students to see that their work can benefit from the depth, breadth, and nuance offered by qualitative insights, and in particular, community engagement and empowerment. In working closely with impacted communities to elevate their needs and centering their voices in design and evaluation processes, fellows gain the tools to become effective allies within and beyond the fellowship.

“In working closely with impacted communities to elevate their needs and centering their voices in design and evaluation processes, fellows gain the tools to become effective allies within and beyond the fellowship.”

Lorraine’s Honors Team working closely with their advisory board to co-design innovations to democratize health data rights. The board was comprised of the population these innovations were intended to serve, and fostered partnership and self-mobilization rather than more passive forms of participation such as survey-taking and information-giving.

Interdisciplinary teaming as an exercise in collective action

Interdisciplinary teaming, a fellowship hallmark, challenges conventional and predominating academic approaches that breed individualism and competition. Time and time again, history has shown us social change is hardly borne of individualism; in fact, the most celebrated human and civil rights advocates in history were always backed by the invisible heroes who gave them the support necessary to act boldly and daringly (Loeb 2004). Similarly, interdisciplinary teaming shows students that they stand to learn from and grow with one another, and that they stand to support each other in their bold and creative endeavors; ultimately, the fellowship encourages students to bind up together, rather than compete against one another, in the pursuit of social justice.

Interdisciplinary teams, which starkly contrast the typical unidisciplinary composition of most undergraduate group project teams, also equip fellows with several tools important to participating in and building movements. The fellowship’s emphasis on problem-solving — as well as the multiple, converging disciplines and backgrounds characteristic of a fellowship team — challenge students with the task of creating shared understanding. In cultivating this understanding, students practice clear and effective communication, negotiation of group methods and goals, and the wisdom to know when to step back and make space.

These skills are hardly honed nor exercised in the typical undergraduate group project, wherein group members typically distribute amongst themselves tasks that can be conquered individually, and wherein group members have a shared disciplinary understanding that is hardly challenged. Conversely, the fellowship cultivates skills that serve as important assets in creating the shared understanding and solidarity that is foundational to any movement.

“Ultimately, the fellowship encourages students to bind up together, rather than compete against one another, in the pursuit of social justice.”

A picture of Rosa Parks (left, four chairs back) meeting with colleagues from the NAACP, Lorraine’s favorite example of a singular person getting recognized for the coordinated efforts of an entire movement. Photo from the Library of Congress, courtesy of Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.

HCD has, in recent years, become a corporate tool for efficient, marketable, and highly profitable customer research. In this transition, HCD has strayed away from its origins in community-based activism and research, both in what it’s used for and in who’s using it. The fellowship, however, reclaims HCD for what it once was: a tool for imagining and enacting social change, and a method for ensuring the rights of all people are upheld irrespective of class, color, or, moreover, privilege. In equipping students, many of whom are traditionally underrepresented in technology, with the frameworks to envision tech as a vehicle for justice, the fellowship reclaims tech as a tool for social good. The journey between “how might we” and “what will be” is undoubtedly long, but the fellowship offers students the foundations to pave the path and go the distance.

Lorraine is an alumna of the 2019–20 Fung Fellowship Honors program. Her major in public health, minor in global poverty & practice, and experiences in the Fellowship have culminated as her interest in participatory design and patient-led-innovations within medicine. In her free time, she enjoys procuring vintage stationery, buying fresh veggies from her friends at the farmers market, and gabbing about her home state of Iowa. Connect with Lorraine or learn more about the Fung Fellowship.

Left photo by Mirthica S of Let Me Capture You photography.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱