2020 Seminar Series
Structural Racism: The Ultimate Determinant of Health
Seminar 1: Voter Suppression
Speakers: State Representative Morgan Cephas and Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier
View the full recording here.
Recap: The Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI) 2020-2021 seminar series, entitled Structural Racism: The Ultimate Social Determinant of Health builds upon our summer series Inequities and COVID-19: The Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color and focuses a public health lens on racism. The first seminar in the series, held October 22, 2020, featured a timely topic leading into the 2020 presidential election – Voter Suppression. Moderator Heather Klusaritz (MSW, PhD), CPHI’s Director of Community Engagement, was joined by Pennsylvania State Representative Morgan Cephas and Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, both of whom represent the West Philadelphia neighborhoods in which they grew up. These civic leaders both expressed a pull to public service based on their experiences in Philadelphia, with Gauthier saying, “Councilmembers have the incredible ability to really empower people within neighborhoods to make change.”
The conversation started with the important connection between voting and health disparities and the critical role of elected officials at every level who support public health decisions and policies. Gauthier pointed out that whoever wins the presidential election will set the policy agenda for the next four years including the key policy decisions that impact public health. The policy agenda is a particularly crucial issue during the COVID-19 pandemic that has real world implications for the constituencies that Gauthier and Cephas represent. Gauthier noted that she represents two neighborhoods with the highest fatality rates in Philadelphia. Cephas elaborated on how important it was to have control over delegating funds for public health, whether it be to support a group of Black and brown doctors who are providing COVID-19 testing for their communities (such as the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium) or whether it is for rural hospitals to increase ICU capacity.
With the recognition of voting and voting rights as a core social determinant of health, it is clear that voter suppression is a type of structural racism with the potential to exacerbate health disparities. "We are voting for our lives and our cities, especially during this pandemic," Gauthier stated. Importantly, Cephas pointed out that voter suppression is not a new phenomenon, with Black and brown people historically having been denied their constitutional right to vote. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there is a partisan effort to decrease access to early polling, while increasing efforts in voter intimidation. This leads to disenfranchisement with the election process, directly suppressing the right to vote. Representative Cephas highlighted some of the current tactics at play in Pennsylvania including attempts to implement “poll watchers to that are from counties throughout
Pennsylvania to come to cities like Philadelphia to potentially do voter intimidation and voter suppression oppression.” Gauthier emphasized, “our votes matter now more than ever... whoever is elected will impact public health priorities.” It doesn’t take much to impact election results, as Gauthier pointed out, Trump won Pennsylvania with a margin of only 44,000 votes in 2016, leading to four years of failed leadership on public health.
Both Cephas and Gauthier emphasized that efforts to overcome voter suppression need to be designed with Black and brown communities in mind, and they encouraged the audience to participate in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts at whatever level they feel comfortable with – from phone banks and personal letter writing campaigns, to driving people to early polling and voter centers, to signing up to be a poll worker on November 3rd. Public health efforts to disseminate evidence-based information about COVID-19 also play a critical role in fighting voter suppression. As Representative Cephas said, "The public health community can help with debunking myths about COVID-19, providing education about personal protective equipment (PPE), and encouraging the use of masks.” It is the responsibility of public health professionals to make sure that the voting population is not obstructed in any way to vote safely.
As we move forward from the 2020 presidential election, efforts to combat voting suppression must continue. Policy decisions that impact the health of the public play out every day in local and state government as well, and the public health community can continue to make sure the right to vote is protected for all Americans.
Seminar 2: Creating Opportunities
Speaker: Deesha Dyer
View the full recording here.
Recap: For our second seminar in the series, Structural Racism: The Ultimate Social Determinant of Health, we invited Deesha Dyer to discuss “Creating Opportunities” and how she has navigated racism in both the political and nonprofit worlds. Moderator Ebony Powell, who is a current Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of City Planning (MCP) dual degree student, originally met Dyer through the Uniquely You Summit in Philadelphia, which works to empower, inspire, and motivate young Black girls to follow their dreams. Dyer is a local Philadelphian who is the Founder and CEO of Hook and Fasten, a social impact agency that specializes in transformational relationships. For the past two decades, she has transformed ideas into causes that create tangible change.
In this seminar, Deesha shared her story and talked about formative experiences that have led her to where she is now. From a young age, Deesha was drawn to doing what she thought was the right thing, whether it be going around picking up trash to helping kids get books. She was always questioning authority – “Why do we have to follow this certain person?” or “Why does this person get to say what is excellent?” Even when she got into trouble for speaking out at school, her parents urged her to use her voice. At age 14, she started volunteering at a local shelter for women who had HIV/AIDs. From that work, she started to learn about advocacy – how to use her voice, especially using it as a Black woman. As she said, “When it comes to advocacy, when it comes to using your voice, don’t wait for a prompt. Don’t wait for the money. Don’t wait for the influence. Just go. And don’t measure your impact against others.”
At 31 years old, Dyer entered the Obama Administration as a community college student intern and ultimately worked her way up to serving as the White House Social Secretary. In that role, she resolved to not only open, but build lasting doors of opportunity for others. She spoke openly about the challenges of deciding to be a person who is going to break down structures. She shared the importance of leading the charge, but sometimes creating change takes being a follower and supporting systems to hold people up who are breaking those structures down.
Upon leaving her role at the White House, Dyer mentioned that “...something changed inside of me and what that was, was me finally saying, you can do more than what the limits that you put on yourself.” Since then, she has made a point to talk openly about “imposter syndrome” and how it can impact a sense of belonging and value within yourself, even impacting your health. During her time as a Resident Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, she held sessions about this with the underlying message of “...stand up and stand with your shoulders tall, so when you can walk forward in your power, nobody will ever again tell you that you’re not worth it...”
Dyer created Hook & Fasten to help companies from the inside out make transformational change around social justice and crisis response, employee volunteerism, DEI, and executive coaching. Through all of these experiences, Deesha has decided to dedicate her time and energy to creating opportunities. She works to create diversity and leadership, to mentor and to give people not just advice, but the confidence to move forward and the connections to open doors. Above all, she’s using her power and privilege to create opportunities for others.
This brief write-up doesn’t begin to touch on the actual conversation that occurred between Deesha Dyer and one of her mentees, Ebony Powell, MPH student. We encourage everyone to listen to the recording.