28 Days of Black Excellence: Saria Lofton
Saria Lofton is a health disparities nurse researcher in the UIC College of Nursing. Her research focuses on health promotion in the Black community locally and internationally, using a community-based participatory research approach. Her previous work investigated urban agriculture in Black communities through the lens of community gardeners and farmers in Chicago. Lofton is currently working on expanding food-is-medicine efforts to hypertensive Black women and exploring ways to use community-based food systems, such as urban agriculture, to improve access to healthy foods for residents on the West Side and South Side communities in Chicago.
.Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to “Black Excellence” at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to “Black Excellence.”
Aisha El-Amin 0:34
Greetings, UIC family and friends, and welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with some powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, past staff and faculty. Each day we have a new guest who will share their story, and today we’re going to learn a little bit about what Saria Lofton has been up to. She’s a graduate, 2005 in the College of Nursing, who’s been doing some really phenomenal things since then. Saria, what have you been up to since 2005? Tell us a little bit about who you are and where you come from as well.
Saria Lofton 1:29
OK, sure. So, my name is Saria Lofton. I am from the West Side of Chicago. So, I’ve been here all my life. And I have always been interested in the medical field. And then in computer science too, but I went into nursing and always interested in public health. I worked on multiple floors, like rehab medical surgical units, but in a clinical setting, but I really always wanted to work with people in a public health setting.
Saria Lofton 2:12
I received my master’s here at UIC. And then I also from there went on to work at Chicago Public Schools as a school nurse. As a school nurse in Chicago Public Schools, I was there up until I came here to be on faculty. It was interesting. A lot of the issues that you see now were happening then. I started there in like 2008? 2006? Between 2006 and 2008. And what we were dealing with then was still like a lack of nursing staffing. And then just issues that were due to nursing staffing, around medication administration, all those things. So, I advocated and did a lot of policy working. I was very involved in union work at Chicago Public Schools in Chicago Teachers Union, and I was a school nurse delegate, and we advocated to support school nurses as a part of the union as a clinician. And during that time, I also did early intervention work. And I was still teaching, working in the hospital. Nurses tend to have multiple jobs. So I did that.
Saria Lofton 3:38
And then I started my Ph.D. shortly after I started at Chicago Public Schools. And I attended Rush and I finished in 2015. And I was able to work with the same population I’ve been working with. At the time, childhood obesity was very big, you had Michelle Obama talking about it. And I investigated childhood obesity using participatory research because I wanted the kids to have a youth-led nutrition intervention that’s led by them, designed by them, that they will be more interested in doing, being a part of. And so that was the impetus of that. And then that went well. We were on the West Side, mostly when we were doing that project. And then once I came to UIC, I was able to apply that project even further.
Saria Lofton 4:35
When I was going to Malawi, Africa, and I researched HIV prevention instead of childhood obesity. So, I’ve always had a passion for nutrition and a passion for community-based work. Working with Malawi youth was just, it was a wonderful experience. I did that right up until the pandemic. And I finished that work actually ended in 2019. But we’ve managed data collection in 2020. And then also, during that time, I was working, continuing with the nutrition work and working with the food environment. And so working with urban agriculture, farmers, growers, advocates, and to improve access to healthy foods on the West and South sides of Chicago, and we’re still doing that now.
Aisha El-Amin 5:29
Wow. Wow. You have been quite busy. And I hear your theme throughout, both youth in helping and serving youth and also community based. So, what high school did you go to? I’m South Side, but you know, I love my West Siders too.
Saria Lofton 5:50
I graduated from Collins High School.
Aisha El-Amin 5:56
OK, awesome. So, as you look back at your time, both as a master’s degree student, Dr. Lofton, and now, in your position, even if you look back even further for your undergrad, what are some of your fondest memories when you when you look back, both at all of your education, but even more specifically, your UIC education.
Saria Lofton 6:21
My fondest memory really is around advocacy work. It really is because I remember like when the schools, before I even worked for Chicago Public Schools, there was a big debate around charter schools. And I was involved with the team in Austin, since that’s the area that I’m from, I was involved with the team because I was like, I wasn’t sure how I felt about charter schools, but I hadn’t worked at CPS. And then when I worked at CPS, I actually worked at charter schools. And so I was really interested in the process and advocacy around it and why people were against it, why people were for it. And I learned a lot. I’ve built a lot of relationships of people that I know now, even when I was working in a union or with the union, as a delegate, there’s people I know now in the work that they’ve done and continuing to advance policy wise, those are always my fondest memories in terms of education.
Saria Lofton 7:25
And I think that policy — I have a love-hate relationship with it. But I think if we can focus on specific things that can move us along, especially our communities along, I think my biggest frustration is that they don’t look that different from when I was younger; in some ways, a little worse. It’s just something I’m always aware of. We’re doing these things, and we’re working on it, and people are working tirelessly. What is policy doing? Or how are we actually advancing policy in a way that it impacts people personally in their lives. So, some of my fondest memories are really around policy, even though now I’m not as connected. But I would like to get back into it because I want to improve on the food-is-medicine work that I do, where the clinics in the urban farms can get reimbursement through Medicare, Medicaid, to support those with chronic health conditions. And so I find myself walking back into that door.
Aisha El-Amin 8:37
I love it. We may have crossed paths at some point. I was really involved in the charter schools and Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union, back in the day. Like you, policy is something that has my heart.
Saria Lofton 8:57
I will actually say, if it is a fond memory, it actually is of Karen, because I think I learned a lot about why I was fighting for what I was fighting through Karen because I kind of got pulled into a lot of stuff with the union. The nurses are so busy, and I was like, “I really want to do this,” and so being able to interact with her and her passion around education was very inspiring and instrumental to the advocacy work that I continue to do and the people that she worked with that I continue to see grow and advance and legislation in policy and advocacy work.
Aisha El-Amin 9:34
Oh, I love it. That’s a great memory of Karen. I think you you’ve captured her quite well, educating folks the whole way with her passion and enthusiasm. As you look back, and at other students who are trying to get to the space that you’re currently occupying, can you talk about some of your challenges along your journey that may be relatable to some of our students?
Saria Lofton 10:05
The biggest challenge was the “how.” They’re like, “OK, well, you got to do this.” I was like, “Well, how do you do it?” And no one gave you a blueprint, even for when I was going through the Ph.D. program, I didn’t know anybody who had a Ph.D., other than the people where I was in school. And I didn’t have a blueprint of how to navigate that better. I had to go outside, and there was this organization called Black Doctoral Network. I had to go to folks like that to get a better understanding of how to move through so I can get done.
Saria Lofton 10:44
And I had my second child when I was starting the program. And so I just felt a little bit lost and not sure. And it’s the “how,” because the lack of modeling. And so for me, a lot of the reason why I stayed in academia, because I hear that a lot, like, “Oh, I didn’t know I had to do this,” or “I didn’t know about that.” So, lack of awareness about resources and opportunities for underrepresented students, but also the process of how to get from one step to the other— even writing was one of the big ones. I mean, I could go on about the challenges. But I know what I know, now. I want to help other people so they don’t have to go though that if they choose to move on to graduate programs. So even in undergraduate, it’s something I teach my kids and they can’t stand it. But I was like, “You have to know how to think, and you have to ask questions and not be afraid.” And I noticed I’m afraid. I was afraid to ask questions, because I thought that sounds stupid. And it was the biggest detriment. And you got to ask them no matter what. We put a lot on ourselves, but that’s a different issue.
Aisha El-Amin 12:14
Oh, I know. You’re speaking truth. And look, I’ll stop you when you’re not. But I think you you are hitting the nail on the head. And as we kind of close out our talk today, can you offer some words of advice? And what words would you even give yourself if you could go back and help to push yourself even quicker or more inspired? Can you offer that advice for to our students.
Saria Lofton 12:47
It’s gonna sound cliche, but a first one would be asking questions. The other one would be not to be afraid of failure. I mean, life is just like a series of failures, and it’s what you learn from it. But if you’re gonna sit in it, then that’s when you actually fail. But if you’re gonna learn from it and apply it to the next situation, that’s what you’re actually supposed to do. So, not being so afraid of missing the mark on things because it’s part of the process of learning. Being more engaged in the process will get you to the end goal as opposed to focusing on arbitrary things, or an idea of what you think you’re supposed to be, or think, “Oh, I’m supposed to ace this test or a set of tasks.” Maybe that C is helping you in a different way — you’re learning something you need from a professor you would have never got if someone just passed you. So, embracing the process and the ups and downs of it, instead of being focused on what society tells us we’re supposed to focus on, which is actually a whole other conversation, but I’ll leave it there.
Aisha El-Amin 14:01
Well, I certainly appreciate you, Dr. Professor Lofton. We appreciate the history that you have with UIC and your current engagement as a faculty member, and I definitely want to keep in touch with you because, I feel very inspired by you.
Saria Lofton 14:19
Definitely. I want to as well. Keep in touch. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about my experience.
Tariq El-Amin 14:27
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.