Being Black in Public Health - Celebrating Diversity

black history month career development consulting diversity equity inclusion representation Feb 28, 2024

Happy Black History Month! As many know, February is dedicated to celebrating and recognizing the accomplishments and significant influences that Black people have had on our history and in shaping the fabric of many aspects of the American culture. As February comes to a quick close, let’s take a moment to recognize Black people and their influences in public health! Two that come to mind are W.E.B. Du Bois from the mid 1800s and Henrietta Lacks who lived in the early 1900s through early 50s.

Du Bois was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Harvard trained sociologist who is most widely known for his research in “The Philadelphia Negro and the Souls of Black Folks”. The research helped demonstrate the social and health ramifications of racism and discrimination. Sound familiar? Today we would more likely hear and study similar topics under the umbrella of social determinants of health. The NAACP has more information on the black intellectual’s achievements.

Lacks is well known for her cervical cancer diagnosis in 1951. When receiving treatment, some of her cells were collected and sent to a lab without her consent. They later discovered that her cells had been growing since 1951 and afterwards became known as the “immortal” cells. Her cells were then used for several biomedical breakthroughs like the Polio vaccine, gene mapping, improving our understandings of cancer and HIV/AIDS, and more. Unfortunately, her controversial story was long ignored, hidden, falsified, and left untold for decades. Recently, her family filed a lawsuit with a biotech company that unjustly used her cells without consent, and benefitted, more than 70 years later. You can read more about current events that’s lead to a lawsuit in the news. Her story, like many others, was one of many where Black people had been medically experimented on without knowledge or consent.

Why does this matter? Representation, of any kind, matters in public health. Many studies have shown that Black patients have better results when they are treated by Black healthcare workers. This is because there is often a direct correlation between health and warmth, and representation in healthcare leads to better health and improved health outcomes. Other studies found that a 10% increase in Black representation has been associated with a 30-day increase in life expectancy for Black people. This is an amazing finding that could be a strategy to advancing racial health equity!

A part of our call as public health practitioners is lessen the widening disparities that have been in motion for centuries. These disparities are often associated with worsening racial injustices. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIAB) is quickly becoming a widely recognized area in public health and even taking roots in workplaces of other industries too. In turn, this opens up job opportunities for interested and trained individuals like you! Public health practitioners need to focus on being effective at building strategic plans that address systemic issues related to discrimination like pay equity and building environments that ensure that all people feel safe, supported, and respected. What are some tips to think from a DEIAB and health equity lens that aren’t 1) played out, 2) inadvertently harm marginalized groups, 3) lack momentum, and 4) don't focus on the right organizational goals? Nectar highlights 10 DEI strategy best practices, but I think these 3 stand out the most for public health practitioners:

1. Customize and Baseline Your DEIAB Strategy

  • Every organization looks different, and although this blog’s focus in on Black persons due to Black History Month, the organization you’re supporting might be comprised of another minority group like Hispanic/Latin, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander – and the list doesn't stop with races. Public health practitioners should think outside of the box to strategize and consider the ethnic, sexual orientation, and religious minorities too. Develop a unique strategy that reflects your organization because a one-size fits all approach is inappropriate and may fall flat soon after its development and lack sustainability.

2. Establish Attainable DEIAB Goals

  • Having measurable goals shows that you as a public health practitioner value metrics to inform action. This should be a part of the customization process mentioned in #1. Nectar highlights some goals to consider in their post. I would take this a bit further to say that your strategic plan should have short-, medium-, and long-term goals and outcomes attached while ensuring that those identified goals are aligned with the overarching goals of the organization. This way your DEIAB strategic plan can pivot with the goals of the organization as necessary.

3. Secure leadership buy-in

  • Changing a culture is difficult, and shifting an organization to think more equitably can take time. This involves breaking down current approaches and ways of thinking to consider new ones – which is difficult in nearly any context. Having the commitment of leadership can make or break your DEIAB plans and therefore should be secured early-on and reinvigorated yearly for ongoing sustainability. Public health practitioners, and leadership in public health organizations alike, should ensure that diversity is embraced at all levels (strategic planning process, data collection, goal setting, and outwardly facing actions)

Representation is so important for public health because simply, the public isn’t made up of one type of person. Instead, the public is comprised of a myriad of cultures, influences, backgrounds, races, genders, religions, the list could go on forever. As a black, male, member of the LGBTQ community, I strive to continually be a beacon of representation for underserved communities. We, as the public health workforce, should continue to look for opportunities to lessen disparities in our work, in the job opportunities that we seek, and be representatives for the communities that we are a part of and those that we serve. Public Health Hired posts job opportunities weekly, many of which have a health equity focus. Check out our Instagram at @publichealthhired and the Hired Blog for more blog content.

Public Health Hired Contributor: Adam is our new Senior Community Engagement Specialist at Public Health Hired and a Doctor of Public Health candidate at Georgia State University. He has a background in health policy and work experience in global health. Throughout his career, he has collaborated with Ministries of Health, National Institutes of Health, and other public health agencies in over 20 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and insular areas in the Pacific on public health program delivery and capacity building. He is currently working as a contract Public Health Analyst at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention focused on policy analysis and partnerships to improve our nation's heart health and increase health equity. Connect with Adam on LinkedIn!

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