On Friday, Oct. 6, the 2017 Community Engagement Institute (CEI) drew a large crowd, both live and virtual, interested in sharing best practices at the nexus of health, environmental renewal, and civil inclusion and empowerment. From the opening keynote speaker to the final networking session, the call for health equity resounded, creating a strong sense of connection and shared purpose among the diverse attendees.
The theme of the CEI 2017 was “Community Health from Engagement and Environmental Renewal (CHEER) for Civil Inclusion and Empowerment.” More than 125 attended in person at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center (BJCC), with dozens more participating at the sister event hosted by CCTS Partner University of South Alabama (USA), which conducted its own breakout sessions in between the livestreamed keynotes from the BJCC.
Opening keynote speaker Dr. Errol Crook, Abraham A. Mitchell Chair, Professor and Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, University of South Alabama College of Medicine, set the tone with his inspirational personal journey from a basic scientist to a “multi-focused health disparities physician investigator.” He shared how he realized during his medical training that a patient’s background includes important information that wasn’t taken into account but had tremendous bearing on health outcomes “and [social determinants of health (SDHs)] is now a burgeoning field of science.”
Crook highlighted the key ingredients that constitute a healthy community: walkable, easily navigable; safe; good jobs; good educational opportunities; healthy and trusting relationships with neighbors; access to all the necessities of life nearby; low stress; no exposure to environmental toxins; able to make decisions regarding its destiny. The latter, he said, was often overlooked but critical to health. The “opportunity to participate in society” reflects a “difference between being poor and being impoverished,” with impoverishment rooted in a lack of education and a voice as well as income.
The challenge and opportunity for academic-community partnerships are “how to give greater voice to those communities whose voices are most ignored.” Crook stressed the most important ingredient for the success of such a partnership is “respect.” He described the current health care disagreement as a debate between those who see health care as a right versus those who see it as a privilege. He challenged the audience to move past this to instead imagine a nation that has achieved health equity. “Are all Americans empowered to make the decisions that will ensure good health over their lifetime?”
Ms. Diane Bell McCoy, the second keynote speaker, also shared a personal journey of finding her voice and learning to use it to dismantle systemic racism by working within such systems. Her story was at times painfully raw, underscoring the link between racism and its negative mental health impacts, such as depression and suicidal ideation. She described the difficulty she faced in getting culturally relevant mental health services as a young college student, struggling to find an African American therapist who “helped me find my gift and apply it to the world around me.”
Bell McCoy is now the President and CEO of Associated Black Charities, a public foundation credited for its work as a catalyst for statewide advocacy, policy design, and innovative transactional strategies as they relate to the impact of structural racism in depressing the economic and health outcomes for the African American community. She explained her approach is grounded in “the Ps”: the intersectionality of Policies that support the racial distribution of both health and wealth; the Process of community engagement; changing Programs not just People (“lives can change, but if systems do not, racial inequities remain”); and keeping it Personal. “This work takes courage…there can be a shared vision, but you have to get past language barriers and establish trust, build relationships, before you can discuss the issue of privilege,” she said.
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