Faculty Q&A: Megan Threats on communities and health justice
With a focus on health, equity and the use of technology to empower minoritized communities, University of Michigan School of Information assistant professor Megan Threats has long been passionate about leveraging her research to make the world a better place.
Tell us about your life before UMSI and what you’re working on right now.
Prior to coming to UMSI, I was a tenure track faculty member at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. I started that position right after graduating with my PhD in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. At Rutgers, I did a project focusing on how LGBTQ women of color access sexual and reproductive health services and information, as well as mental health services, and their attitudes towards using emerging technologies and telehealth. It was a nationwide survey and I’m at a point now where I’m analyzing and disseminating data from the study.
I also started a visiting faculty appointment at the Yale School of Public Health through their Research Education Institute for Diverse Scholars (REIDS). Essentially it’s a program for pre-tenure faculty and postdocs who conduct research with some relation to HIV. It’s an intensive two-year program where you get research funding, a visiting faculty appointment at Yale, matched with mentors and access to their resources, including library materials, research methods training and review panels for grant writing preparation.
It’s helped me prepare for my position at UMSI and it’s a community of people of color who are underrepresented in academia. It’s a small community. We’re all in this together, and to be in academia as a woman of color, and especially a first generation college student, has its challenges. Neither of my parents completed college and I think that’s the case for many people from working class backgrounds. We’re the first, we don’t have a point of reference and so the REIDS program has helped prepare and train me.
What was your life like before UMSI?
I used to be a librarian. I have a Master’s in Library and Information Science, which is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I loved being a librarian. It’s a wonderful career. As an undergraduate, I was a Gates Millenium Scholar. During your undergraduate studies, they expose scholars to different STEM-related fields through a variety of initiatives including sending us on sponsored trips to academic and professional conferences. One of the sponsored trips was to the American Library Association conference in 2009. There was a librarian there who took me under her wing and explained all the different ways I could use a library and information science degree. I decided to begin my graduate degree in Library and Information Science at Syracuse University in 2011.
There, I worked on a project named The Black History Preservation Project. We had a chance to digitize artifacts from Black communities living in the upstate New York and Syracuse areas. And it was incredible. I also interned at the Syracuse University Bird Library Learning Commons, where I had a chance to create ready reference guides and develop programming with Librarians at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. My favorite was the resource guide I created for the Gender and Environmental Justice Project, and a workshop titled ‘Litany for Survival’ which focused on helping Black women and LGBTQ people of color build sustainable communities through the use of library resources as part of the Gender, Black Feminism, and Environmental Justice special collection.
What led you to the field of information and health justice?
After graduating from Syracuse in 2013, I landed a job as the Public Services and Reference Librarian at the AIDS Library of Philadelphia. It used to be a standalone library, but eventually became part of Philadelphia FIGHT. It was founded during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1987 by activists in Philadelphia and was the first lending library in the U.S. dedicated to providing HIV/AIDS information and combating HIV stigma. I love Philadelphia FIGHT. It is the largest federally qualified health center in Philadelphia, and it has centers across the whole city. I did public programs at all of them. I especially loved working with young adults at the Y-HEP Youth Health Center and with incarcerated and returning citizens at the Institute for Community Justice (ICJ).That’s what changed everything for me. ICJ published a quarterly newsletter called Prison Health News that we’d send to jails and prisons across the United States. Incarcerated people and returning citizens would write articles sharing their experiences and submit artwork for publication. One of the really cool things about Prison Health News is that subscribers could submit questions related to health and healthcare, and so I would respond to thousands of reference inquiries each year. The problem is that a lot of libraries in prisons and jails were either shut down, or privatized, or didn’t have books focused on consumer health. So we tried our best to fill those gaps whenever possible. I quickly started to notice that we were getting frequent requests for information from people who were about to be released, and wanted help finding healthcare and other resources like housing, food, education and employment. So myself, the other librarians and social workers at Philadelphia FIGHT worked together to create a comprehensive resource guide and reentry planning guide for people returning to the Greater Philadelphia area. We did our best to create resource lists for returning citizens in other states too. That was a project that was really important to me.
We offered a lot of programming and resources for the public at the AIDS Library of Philadelphia, including digital literacy, adult basic education, ESL and a host of other classes. While we were open to the general public, many of the people who relied heavily on library programming and resources were enrolled in care or other programs at Philadelphia FIGHT. One of the challenges that our physicians had was keeping patients enrolled in care after receiving a positive diagnosis, and helping young adults transition to adult care. We were able to develop and implement community-level interventions that leveraged mobile technology, MedlinePlus health information resources, and health/digital literacy programming through funding from the National Library of Medicine HIV/AIDS Community Information Outreach Program to help people navigate the HIV prevention and care continua.
I love working with and in the community. On the side, I became a certified HIV tester and counselor. I would do presentations about sexual and reproductive health all around the city at various community-based organizations, shelters, etc. Given how quickly technology was becoming integrated into healthcare delivery, especially patient-facing tools, we started to really beef up our efforts to address digital health literacy too, but were limited in resources. That’s what really inspired me to go pursue my PhD – working with people in Philadelphia and seeing all the challenges and barriers they had to navigate to get healthcare. I figured there had to be a way to make these processes easier, and I knew technology could play a big role.
You were working on the ground, and then you pivoted to academia. What was that transition like?
I’m still doing these interventions, but from an empirical perspective. A lot of what we did at Philadelphia FIGHT was responding to immediate needs, but it wasn’t based on academic scholarship. I wanted to do work with intentionality that aims to be sustainable, by being grounded in theory while also building strong community connections. And this is why now a lot of my work is grounded in intersectionality and other critical theories, and why I love doing community-based participatory research.
I get to answer the how and why questions that constantly came up when I was working at Philadelphia FIGHT. Why do these barriers exist? How do we overcome them? How do community members see this?
How have you been connecting to communities in Michigan with a research lens?
So far I’m learning from other faculty at UMSI who are heavily involved in the community. So, Tiffany Veinot, Tawanna Dillahunt and Mustafa Naseem. I’ve also spoken at length with Ihudiya Finda Williams, a recent UMSI PhD graduate who worked closely with returning citizens in Michigan and especially Detroit.
And also speaking with friends and family who work for organizations in the state of Michigan to get an understanding of their perceptions of the university and the projects that have been done. What works, what doesn’t and how do they feel about the presence of the University of Michigan? What type of financial investments does the university have and what do these community partnerships look like? How are we ensuring sustainability?
The intersection of race and sexuality is important to your work. Was there a moment that inspired this interest? What motivates you to keep doing this research?
We have to think about networks of marginalization and oppression as people experience them. And often racism is tied with sexual orientation discrimination. When there's progress made towards racial justice that usually means improved conditions for queer folks too. When we think about civil rights, our fates are tied together. Historically, leaders of the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement have been Black and queer. People like Bayard Rustin and Marsha P. Johnson were on the ground at the forefront advocating for our rights. It’s central to my work, because it ensures that the identities of individuals are not treated as a monolith, decentralized, or at worst, erased. And because it provides a more holistic and nuanced understanding of how intersecting systems of oppression based on mutually constructed and interdependent social identities, such as race, gender, ability status, sexuality, etc. shape lived experiences. I want to see an end to structural racism and sexual orientation discrimination. Given the recent uptick in anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black legislation, we may have a long road ahead of us.
What are you teaching right now at UMSI? What’s it been like?
It’s been a good experience. I taught an information resources and service class, and I also taught a class on online communities. It’s been wonderful working with my graduate student instructor, Shannon Li, who is super talented. It’s been interesting learning about the different career tracks of students who come to UMSI. It’s so diverse.
What do you see in your most successful students?
I feel like all of them are successful. In terms of thinking about what’s most successful, it’s the students who have their own interests and are able to apply what they learn in class to what they’re curious about. That’s what I did in my education. Find out what’s missing, what I can do and what gaps can be filled.
What projects are you working on right now?
I was recently named a 2023 Anti-Racism Research & Community Impact Faculty Fellow. This grant will help support a project investigating how returning citizens in the state of Michigan navigate the digital dive and attain health, digital, and digital health literacies upon reentry. Mass incarceration and the digital divide have a disparate impact on Black and Latino communities throughout the state. This project aims to provide an understanding of how both these factors collectively shape the pursuit of key literacies among returning citizens.
Learn more about Megan Threats, her research, publications and opportunities to work with her by visiting her UMSI faculty profile.