Reflecting on Notable Contributors to Public Health

From 1,000 Days Initiative Director, Blythe Thomas

Next month marks the one-year anniversary when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In this year, we’ve experienced a triple crisis of a global pandemic, a national reckoning on racial justice and a downfallen economy. COVID-19 has especially shined a light on the health inequalities that have been pervasive in our society.

I work in the public health sector, with public health defined as the practice of preventing disease and promoting good health within groups of people, from small communities to entire countries. My colleagues across the public health sector have been tested like never before. This month especially, Black History Month, I’ve been reflecting on the Black men and women who have made instrumental contributions to public health in the United States, some who are recognized globally and some who have personally influenced my career.

I was fortunate to start my journey at the American Red Cross, where I joined the Biomedical Services division to increase awareness about the need for voluntary blood donations. Still today, every 2 seconds, someone needs blood in this country. Upon joining the organization, I learned about Dr. Charles Richard Drew, the African American surgeon and researcher who organized America’s first large-scale blood bank and trained a generation of Black physicians at Howard University. His method for the collection banking of blood products and the logistics of collecting and distributing blood saved countless lives in the trenches of World War II and the wards of military and civilian hospitals.

While at the Kansas Health Foundation, I learned about social determinants of health and especially how systemic racism is a public health crisis. Racism plays a leading role in the social determinants of health such as income, education level, and healthy childhood development. To break that down further: a person’s zip code can be a better predictor of long-term health and lifespan than one’s own DNA. While at KHF, Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones was the president of the American Public Health Association, and I was so inspired by her brilliance, and also her grace. In 2015, she launched a National Campaign Against Racism at APHA. She spoke (and continues to speak) with such strength and determination that … “Achieving health equity requires valuing all individuals and populations equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and providing resources according to need. Health disparities will be eliminated when health equity is achieved.”

Also while at KHF, I learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Founder of the Center for Youth Wellness and current Surgeon General of California. It was the first time I learned about the relationship between early childhood adversity and negative lifelong health effects. Her research found that the long-term impact of ACEs determined future health risks, chronic disease, and premature death. Individuals who have experienced multiple ACEs also face higher risks of depression, addiction, obesity, attempted suicide, mental health disorders, and other health concerns. And according to UNC Jordan Institute for Families: “Exposure to racism, and other ACEs, affect our health largely through the body’s stress response system. This ‘toxic stress’ destroys critical regulation systems in our bodies and brains and can ruin our health over time. With racism on full display in the media via police killings of Black people and the rise of right-wing white supremacist groups into national politics, the stress from the threat of racism is likely very high today for Black children.”

Now at 1,000 Days I continue to be inspired by colleagues who are helping us make a difference for those mothers and children who are most vulnerable, in particular, families of color who are overburdened and under-resourced. As a result, there are glaring disparities in the health and well-being of moms and babies. I learned this through my own studies and also through colleagues across the philanthropic community, especially Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president emerita and former CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). While at the Partnership for a Healthier America and now at 1,000 Days, I followed as she led the way to set a vision for a Culture of Health, spearheading health initiatives to create healthier, more equitable communities. And my current leader, FHI Solutions Managing Director Nadra Franklin, who has extensive experience in health research and implementation, now leads three centers of excellence that promote healthy growth and development through nutrition. Nadra’s vision of nutrition focused, innovation led, powers a unique approach to improve nutrition, to save lives and create a healthier, more productive and secure world.

While I am humbled every day by the leaders who inspire me, I am especially grateful this year, this Black History Month, for the men and women who have made such a tremendous impact on my life and the lives of countless others.