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.

Seminar 3: Imagine Justice: How Do We Invest In Transformative Communities?

Speakers: Cameryn Okeke, MBE, Senior Research Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, and Saadiq Anderson-Bey, MSW, CASAC, Chief of the Young Adult Diversion Unit at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office

Listen to the full seminar here.

In our third seminar in the series, Structural Racism: The Ultimate Social Determinant of Health, we focused on how to reimagine justice to create transformative communities, with Cameryn Okeke, MBE, Senior Research Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, and Saadiq Anderson-Bey, MSW, CASAC, Chief of the Young Adult Diversion Unit at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. Moderator and current Master of Public Health and Master of City Planning student Ebony Powell led a conversation that touched on how we can combat oppressive structures and perceptions to empower, rather than punish, black and brown communities. Our featured speakers also described creative approaches to reshaping the criminal justice system and emphasized the need for representation, proximity, and accountability in order to create meaningful change in marginalized communities. 

The conversation began by addressing the impact of city structures and perceptions on investment in the criminal justice system. Both speakers spoke about how perceptions, often negative, heavily influence how we invest in certain communities. Cameryn highlighted the cycle of perception and investment that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in neighborhoods that are perceived negatively are often over-policed, which leads to more punitive investments rather than investments that empower communities. Moreover, the policies that guide investments in communities are generated by a system that was not created for and does not value black and brown people, further reinforcing structural racism. Cameryn also discussed the historical implications of racial segregation and redlining and how their effects still reverberate through black and brown communities today. These racially segregated and redlined areas often coincide with over-policed and poorly-resourced neighborhoods. The legacy of redlining is explicitly operationalized in our contemporary city structures (education, health care, housing, job access) that are supposed to support and aid in the progression of individuals yet continue to systematically fail black and brown communities.  Cameryn pointed out that as a result, the criminal justice system has become a stopgap or stabilization point for these failed structures. Further, Saadiq described how there is a correlation between historically redlined areas, like his community of Brownsville in Brooklyn, NY, and many poor health outcomes and violence, which he says is a result of policies and divestment. 

With current investment lacking in black and brown communities, we discussed how merely spending time, providing attention, and listening to the youth and young adults can be inexpensive forms of investment. These forms of investments should be provided before a young adult even enters the criminal justice system. Saadiq described how diversion programs, like the one he manages at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, strive to provide these relationships and opportunities for young men to be themselves, be heard, and ultimately cared for by employees of the program who work in the neighborhood where the young people reside. The diversion program not only allows the youth and young adults to develop networks and relationships, it exposes them to conflict resolution through nature activities, counseling, and health resources. Both speakers emphasized how proximity and accountability are extremely important to establishing authentic relationships with young adults because it allows you to have a better understanding of the systemic issues and community needs. Saadiq described how many of the individuals who work in the Brooklyn DA’s Office live in the communities where they are providing services, which speaks to the idea of proximity. According to Saadiq, the diversion program serves as a proxy to many of the social and public health services, where the program participants can have basic needs met, like access to food, housing, and health care. While the delivery of these services through a trusted program is critical, if these basic needs were met prior to an individual being exposed to the criminal justice system, we might reduce the number of individuals entering the system all together. 

So how can we reimagine the criminal justice system and transform communities? Currently, the criminal justice system funding is funneled into jails and police departments, but we are not investing enough in structural systems that allow people to thrive like education, housing, employment, and health care. Cameryn referenced the work of Mariame Kaba, who proposes that if we take punishment off the table, we would actually have to invest in communities and people, nurturing individuals into being responsible and accountable adults with conflict resolution skills, rules, and boundaries. 

However, it is important to mention that there is no single simple solution to these issues, but long-term change is possible is more likely if we allow people to be creative and to develop intentional and non-punitive solutions that explicitly are focused on black and brown communities. Most importantly, Saadiq and Cameryn described how the individuals doing this work have to be committed, proximate, open to listening and apply an asset-based approach, opposed to a deficit-based approach in communities, where people see problems. Ultimately, we need to think about how much it costs us to continually forget about the same marginalized communities over and over again. 

We encourage you to listen to the recording because it provides an in-depth view into the conversation around reimagining the criminal justice system and transformative communities!