In honor of National Public Health Week, we’re paying tribute to some outstanding individuals in the public health field. But first—bear with me—a little historical context.
It’s no secret that here at UCS, we love science. It can help us define complex problems, identify the best methods to solve them, and (if we’ve done a good job) provide us with metrics for measuring the progress we’ve made.
But it would be both irresponsible and incredibly destructive to pretend that science operates in isolation from systems of deeply rooted racism and oppression that plague scientific, political, and cultural institutions in the United States—particularly when it comes to health. Such systems have been used to justify unfathomably cruel and inhumane medical experimentation performed on black bodies in slavery, which were only replaced in the Jim Crow era by pervasive medical mistreatment that resulted in untold fatalities. Racist medical practices were tolerated, if not explicitly condoned, by professional organizations such as the American Medical Association through the late 1960s. The government-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which effectively denied syphilis treatment to nearly 400 black men over the course of 40 years, ended in 1972, but a formal apology was not issued for this deliberate violation of human rights until 1997. And still, in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms across the United States today, race remains a significant predictor of the quality of healthcare a person will receive.
This is, of course, deeply troubling. (And worthy of far deeper discussions than a blog post can provide—see a short list of book recommendations below.)
But perhaps just as troubling as the underpinnings of racism in science and medicine is its relative obscurity in the historical narratives propagated by dominant (read: white) culture. That modern medicine was built on the backs of marginalized populations is well understood and indeed has been lived by many, but it is far from being accepted as universal truth. Meanwhile, the contributions of black scientists, doctors, and health advocates have routinely been eclipsed by those of their white colleagues or are absent entirely from historical records. (At least until Hollywood spots a blockbuster.)
Public health advocates and practitioners have a responsibility both to understand this complex history of medical racism, if they have not already experienced it firsthand, and to thoroughly integrate its implications into their daily work. This includes acknowledging the tensions that may stem from deep distrust of the medical community by communities of color; considering the multiple ways in which implicit bias and institutional racism may impact social determinants of health, risk of chronic disease, access to care, and quality of treatment; applying a racial equity lens to policy and program decision-making; and, last but not least, giving credit where it’s due.
Today, my focus is on that last point. Though public health is not necessarily a discipline that generates fame or notoriety (it has been said, in fact, that public health is only discussed when it is in jeopardy), you should know the names of these five black public health champions. Some past, some present, some well-known and some less so, they are all powerful forces who have made significant contributions to this field.
Have other names we should know? Leave them in the comments.
1. Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General
During the four-year term she served as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General (2009-2013), Regina Benjamin shifted the national focus on health from a treatment-based to a prevention-based perspective, highlighting the importance of lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, and stress management in the prevention of chronic disease. Other campaigns during Dr. Benjamin’s term targeted breastfeeding and baby-friendly hospitals, tobacco use prevention among youth and young adults, healthy housing conditions, and suicide prevention. Prior to serving as the Surgeon General, Dr. Benjamin established the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, providing care for patients on a sliding payment scale and even covering some medical expenses out of her own pocket. Dr. Benjamin has been widely recognized for her determination and humanitarian spirit.
2. Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Avery Institute for Social Change
Despite the passage of Roe v Wade in 1973, access to abortions remained limited in the years thereafter, particularly for many black women. Byllye Avery began helping women travel to New York to obtain abortions in the early 1970s, and in 1974 co-founded the Gainesville Women’s Health Center to expand critical access to abortions and other health care services. In 1983, Avery founded the National Black Women’s Health Project (now called the Black Women’s Health Imperative), a national organization committed to “defining, promoting, and maintaining the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of black women and their families.” Avery has received numerous awards for her work, including the Dorothy I. Height Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), the Ruth Bader Ginsberg Impact Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women (2008), and the Audre Lorde Spirit of Fire Award from the Fenway Health Center in Boston (2010).
3. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party
Here’s a name you might know—and a story that might surprise you. While the Black Panther Party, co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, is often remembered for its radical political activism, the black nationalist organization was also deeply engaged in public health work. True to their rallying call to “serve the people body and soul,” the Black Panthers established over a dozen free community health clinics nationwide and implemented a free breakfast program for children. This program, which served its first meal out of a church in Oakland, California in 1968, was one of the first organized school breakfast programs in the country and quickly became a cornerstone of the party. By 1969, the Black Panthers were serving breakfast to 20,000 children in 19 cities around the country. Though the government eventually dismantled the program along with the party itself, many believe it was a driving factor in the establishment of the School Breakfast Program in 1975.
4. Dr. Camara Jones, former president of the American Public Health Association
As the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Camara Jones brought the impact of racism on health and well-being to the forefront of the public health agenda. She initiated a National Campaign Against Racism, with three strategic goals: naming racism as a driver of social determinants of health; identifying the ways in which racism drives current and past policies and practices; and facilitating conversation, research, and interventions to address racism and improve population health. Dr. Jones has also published various frameworks and allegories, perhaps the most famous of which is Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, to help facilitate an understanding of the nuance and layers of racism across the general population.
5. Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Malik Yakini may not see himself as a public health advocate, but that hasn’t stopped him from receiving speaking requests from prominent public health institutions across the country. A native Detroiter, Yakini views the food system as a place where inequities play out at the hand of racism, capitalism, and class divisions. “There can be no food justice without social justice,” he said to an audience at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. “In cities like Detroit where the population is predominantly African American, we are seen as markets for inferior goods.” Yakini founded the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network in 2006 to ensure that Detroit communities could exercise sovereignty and self-determination in producing and consuming affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. The organization operates the seven-acre D-Town Farm on Detroit’s east side and is now in the process of establishing the Detroit Food People’s Co-op.
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