98: MLK and Health Equity

ASTHO CEO Mike Fraser considers Dr. Martin Luther King’s influence on public health and his impact on the organization’s approach to equity; Dr. Alexis Travis, Michigan’s State Health Officer, tells us how the civil rights icon has influenced...

ASTHO CEO Mike Fraser considers Dr. Martin Luther King’s influence on public health and his impact on the organization’s approach to equity; Dr. Alexis Travis, Michigan’s State Health Officer, tells us how the civil rights icon has influenced her work in public health; Dr. Kimberlee Wyche Etheridge says Dr. King’s impact on public health remains strong; and former Washington State Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman explains how Dr. King’s lessons can inform our approach to health equity today and in the future.

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This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Friday, January 14th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an opportunity to reflect on the life, legacy, and lessons left to us by the late civil rights icon. In today's morning conversation, ASTHO CEO Mike Fraser considers Dr. King's influence on public health and his impact on the organization's approach to equity.

Monday, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Do you see his message reflected in public health work today?


Well, Martin Luther King Jr. is actually one of my idols—one of my favorite leaders to talk about when I'm teaching leadership—for lots of different reasons.

But, you know, in the context of public health, I think Dr. King was very prescient in a statement he made, which was, "Of all the forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman." And I think that quote rings true to me working in public health, because it is in health—our health and our wellbeing—where we see the impact of racism, of discrimination, of all that he was leading us to fight against.

And I think in public health there is this renewed interest in health equity. There's a tremendous new investment in state efforts to engage communities in the work of public health, to address the inequities we see in health, and to promote wellbeing of everybody. And, ultimately, the job of public health is to assure the conditions in which everybody can be healthy—not just those of us who may be privileged in one way or the other, but everybody. And I think public health takes that charge very, very seriously. And especially now, with the COVID pandemic and all that we're seeing with disparities, it's just high on everyone's list.


How does his legacy inspire ASTHO's work?


As I mentioned, Dr. King inspires me personally as a leader, and I know many members of our team feel the same way.

But in terms of our organization, this issue that we're all wrestling with right now, which is how do we address racism as a public health emergency, is particularly important; and pointing to the inequities and pointing to the work that we have to do as ASTHO when helping states address health disparities, address equity, and, frankly, address racism in their states is something that our board is committed to and all of our project work is supportive of. And in our new strategic plan for the next three years, equity and work to support states in the work of health equity is a number one priority.

So, I think he inspires us; and the work of his legacy has led us to this place where we've got tremendous opportunity now to address racism in public health agencies and in the communities that they serve.


How do we do that? How does public health do more to reflect Dr. King's legacy?


Well, I think there's a couple ways.

A lot of the work of public health, especially when we're looking at data and surveillance, has been able to describe the disparities. And so, there's a lot of work, you know, about how wide gaps are or how different populations' access is. But what we have to do now is take those data and actually do something with them. And that's been, I think, a big missing piece.

And the way that I've seen most states approach this is to go to communities, to engage in authentic relationship with communities, to identify priorities, and empower those communities to make the changes that they see they need to improve their health and wellbeing. And it's when states do that—whether it's states directly, or through state funding to local health agencies, or state funding to NGOs—that we see the most impact. And I think we're going to see a tremendous amount of that in the future.

And if you go back to what Dr. King did, you know, it was really about mobilizing communities around change. And so, I think that strategy—community engagement, community mobilization, community empowerment—is one that we have to be much more fluent in public health; not just the data side of all of it, but the action side of all of it.



Dr. Alexis Travis is the state health officer in Michigan. We wanted to know how Dr. King has influenced her work in public health.

Here's what she told us.


I've drawn great inspiration from him in my work. One of the things I heavily believe in is health equity, and also diversity equity and inclusion integrated in our approach to reach and health equity. And so, you know, the concept of inclusion, but also making sure that we're leading with race in our health equity work is so important—understanding that intersectionality that exists.

But for me on Monday, I'll be thinking about service and the service that Martin Luther King did and engaged in on behalf of all Americans, and looking for ways to continue his legacy through our work.



Dr. Kim Wyche-Etheridge joined ASTHO last fall as its new senior vice president for health equity and diversity initiatives. She says Dr. King's impact on public health remain strong.


From the health equity standpoint, Dr. King has taught me and taught us that we cannot take a blind eye to health, to differential length of life, to be okay with numbers of infants that are dying just because of their zip code or the color of their skin, or the number of grandparents that will never see their grandchildren because of diabetes and kidney disease or heart disease.

All of these things have been brought to light in a lot of ways because of the work that Dr. King did; and it's given all of us a lifetime of work to follow up on, to finally see a time when everyone has the same right and the same ability to be as healthy as they can be.



So, how might Dr. King's lessons inform our approach to health equity going forward? Former Washington state secretary of health, Dr. John Wiesman, explains.


You know, I think it's the recognition that injustices for one are really injustices for all of us. And if somebody does not have the clean air to breathe, if they don't have communities that they can live in free of toxic chemicals and unhealthy—whether it's violence, whatever that might be—it's really hard for us to exercise our freedoms.

And that we in public health really need to focus on justice. We need to focus on racial and ethnic justice, environmental justice, so that all of us have the ability to live a healthy life and to live the freedoms that I think this country was founded on.



That'll do it for today's report.


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We're taking the day off Monday to honor Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr., but we'll be back Tuesday morning with more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great weekend.

Kimberlee Wyche-Etheridge MD MPH

Senior Vice President, Health Equity and Diversity Initiatives, ASTHO

Alexis Travis PhD

Senior Deputy Director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

John Wiesman DrPH MPH

Professor of the Practice & Director, Executive Doctoral Program in Health Leadership, University of North Carolina