How Can One Public Health Professional Impact Health Equity?
The Community Health Training Institute had a successful Health Equity Cohort, and our Project Manager Gina Rodriguez shares her reflections on why this work is so meaningful to her.
It can be quite harrowing to recall certain turning points in my life and name exactly where institutional racism intersected. Distinctly remembering moments where I felt like I was slowly crawling out of the bucket before educational and health inequities became too heavy to bear; constantly feeling pulled back by things beyond my control. The concept of equity and the systems in place that keep perpetuating inequity can feel so grand, so disconnected from everyday life that they take on a life of their own. They become so big and overwhelming, how in the world can one public health professional really impact health equity?
I’ve spent the last sixteen years of my life working in the non-profit field. At the ripe old age of 18, I became a youth organizer in the South End neighborhood of Boston. I was living in a housing complex with my dad and working with other young people to organize around issues like gentrification and community violence. I remember that time in my life very vividly. Up until that point, I was convinced I was going to be a high school English teacher. I was a freshman at Emmanuel College and working part-time so I could pay for my books, commuting and having a hard time managing a full-time class schedule. By the end of my spring semester, I realized that I could not afford to keep going to college and neither of my parents were approved for the loans I needed to continue school; I felt hopeless and lost. I was the first one of my siblings accepted into an undergraduate program, and I couldn’t even make it beyond my first year? Luckily, if it weren’t for my job as a youth organizer in the South End, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.
After dropping out of Emmanuel College, I began working fulltime. I was given the opportunity to attend a certificate program while I worked. While in the program, I was able to explore theories and concepts of youth development and the ways in which our brain developed from youth into adulthood. By participating in this program, it became clear to me how my experience as a young Puerto Rican woman growing up in a low-income neighborhood of Boston told a clear and blatant story of institutional and structural racism. That experience was compounded by the normal growing pains that adolescents face through their formative years, a reality and injustice I wasn’t even aware of. Sitting in a room with other youth workers of color, I learned that my story was not unique by any means. Not only was it sad and disheartening to realize, but it made me angry! Angry at the world and at myself for being so naive. But it wasn’t very long before I decided that this anger bubbling up inside me could be turned into the fuel I needed to start my journey in this work. As time passed, my work morphed from youth organizing to violence prevention, community organizing to program facilitation, housing stabilization to working on a teen parenting program. Each step adding invaluable years of experience to my resume and more importantly, another piece to the puzzle in helping me understand the world around me and how I fit in.
Now, as a public health professional, specifically, building capacity and educating community members on different public health topics, I feel my journey has lead me down the right path . We recently wrapped up a pilot project called the ‘Health Equity Learning Cohort’ which was a three-part training series lead by health equity experts. The goal of the cohort was to equip participants to better understand how health equity fits into their work. It is through this cohort experience that I am now beginning to fit all of my own pieces together. Once we began to have real conversations in our group about equity efforts happening across the state of Massachusetts, I saw the power we held in sharing our stories, struggles and realizations - that we can’t move ahead if we continue to work in our silos. There are coalitions and public health professionals all across Massachusetts doing amazing work, but the demands to provide immediate results often prevents us from pausing and talking with others in this grind. The constant struggle for funding and trying make it fit the needs of our communities has fogged our vision. Sometimes when you slow down, share and listen, the picture starts to become clearer. This journey started very personally for me but as I began to see and hear about other peoples’ stories, it grew into a collective conversation.
When we start to unravel the stories of our community members, walk back the experiences of our students, share and understand the struggles that we face in our own daily lives, then we can begin to give these inequities a face and a name. As the members of our learning cohort began to dive deeper into health equity, I recalled those parts of my own story when I felt oppressed, hopeless and lost. The dots between where I stood today and how I was connected (or not connected) to the larger story became clearer. My journey is not a sad tale of how I’ve been victimized by a system I didn’t even realize I was in. What I have come to know is that I wasn’t alone in those moments, and that feeling of hopelessness, has now turned into a story of hope. It has shined a light on the importance of sharing my journey so that others don’t feel alone as well. As we wrapped up our cohort trainings, 35 public health champions went back into the world to continue to battle these health inequities, and I am reflecting to myself 16 years ago and thinking: “you’ll be okay”. I wasn’t alone then and I’m not alone now. I was and am surrounded by colleagues and professionals who have made it their life’s mission to combat these inequities that feel almost too impossible to overcome. We have found power and strength in our collective force. I am giving myself permission to share, grow and pass that permission along to others on the same path to share our journeys, keep mobilizing against inequities, and fighting to make the world a more just place for generations to come.