By Jasmine Leonard
At three years old, I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up to help my father, who experienced malpractice in healthcare. At four years old, I wanted to become a doctor because I wanted to heal my parents’ disabilities. For most of my adolescence, I ran with the sole ambition of being a physician because being a caregiver for my parents was the only view I had of the healthcare system. My path has always leaned towards health equity and social justice, but it took me over 20 years to find my home in public health.
The most frustrating part of my story is that it is not unique among Black public health professionals. Many of us find our way to public health by chance, which should not be the norm. To meet the needs of our racially diverse population and to address health disparities, we need an equally diverse public health workforce across all levels of training, education, and experience.
Over the past few years, disparities in the number of Black physicians have received considerable attention. The same cannot be said for public health professionals. A diverse public health workforce is essential to move to a preventative, community-focused approach that proactively addresses the political and social determinants of health.
While the percentage of public health degrees conferred to Black students has increased in recent years, degrees alone are not the answer. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local health agencies experienced substantial budget cuts, a reduction in the workforce, and a lack of national prioritization. When the pandemic began, the existing shortfalls of the public health workforce collided with undeniable discrepancies in access, resources, and outcomes. Now, we are in dire need of a structurally competent and sensitive public health infrastructure that represents and understands the historically and systemically excluded communities.
To create and sustain an active Black public health workforce, we need to:
Introduce Black children to the field of public health starting in elementary school, especially in areas of high social risk.
Develop community and school-based programs that pair Black students and public health professionals for mentorship, shadowing and volunteer opportunities.
Construct and fund longstanding scholarship and grant opportunities for Black students seeking public health training and degrees across all levels.
Prioritize and fund community-based participatory research led by Black public health professionals.
Require Black voices at all discussions pertaining to public health and health equity.
As we live through multiple pandemics and epidemics of COVID-19, gun violence, suicide, and racism, we cannot wait for future Black public health professionals to find the field and hope for the current workforce to battle through. We must actively cultivate and create safe and equitable spaces across all public health disciplines. I hope if we get this right, we will be able to create a positive experience for Black public health professionals and start to see a more representative workforce.
Jasmine Leonard, MPH, is a public health professional focused on promoting health equity as a Senior Practice Consultant Health Equity Enterprise Manager for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. She brings thought-provoking educational seminars to thousands of healthcare industry professionals to build knowledge on the historical impacts of slavery, institutional discrimination, and medical mistreatment based on race.
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