Reflections on Black History Month: A Q&A with Gail Christopher and Michael Fraser

February 25, 2021 | Mattie Quinn

As Black History Month comes to a close, we wanted to reflect on racial equity and how it is intrinsically connected to the work ASTHO does every day in public health. There is much work to be done, but ASTHO as an organization is committed to fighting the injustice of racism and the impacts it has on public health.

We spoke to our CEO Michael Fraser and Gail Christopher, DN, the executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, to get their thoughts on the month and how we can prioritize diversity and inclusion year-round. Christopher is a nationally recognized speaker on the social determinants of health and well-being, and has led ASTHO in our own internal conversations on racial healing.

Below is an excerpt of their reflections.

Q. What does Black History Month mean to you personally?

CHRISTOPHER: It means truth to me. It’s an opportunity to undo the lie of a human hierarchy, and a chance to affirm the humanity of people whose humanity has been denied.

FRASER: Personally, Black History Month is a meaningful reminder to take some time to acknowledge the rich legacy that Black Americans have contributed to our nation. While we can and should obviously make these acknowledgments throughout the year, a month provides a focus and a reminder to me to actively reflect. I also learn something new every Black History month—so it is a learning moment as well. And I love to see the creative ways that other groups celebrate Black history and share it with others.

Q: How do you see public health growing over time in terms of diverse representation and health equity? Where do you see more room for growth?

FRASER: I see public health becoming increasingly re-focused on equity and racial justice. With the medicalization of health overall, and public health going along with that trend, we lost a focus on social determinants of health. We are now getting back to a focus on health equity and renewing that historic interest. I see more Black people leading in public health, and I see more growth in how we support and grow health officials for leadership in agencies that they serve. That excites me. Our Diverse Executive Leaders in Public Health program is going to be a great way to intentionally develop racially diverse cohorts of leaders for public health agencies. That’s a partnership with the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse University that I think is really neat and an example of a growth area for ASTHO.

CHRISTOPHER: We don't have enough diversity in terms of personnel. We must speed up our ways to invite diverse representation in public health and in our medical fields. I keep thinking about a study on the physician/patient relationship from the National Academy of Sciences that looked at birth outcomes in Florida. They could document that when a Black newborn was cared for by a Black doctor, there was a 50% reduction in infant mortality. We think about all of these things we do on a conscious level, but this highlights the depths of a residual absence of connection. We must have a deeper connection with each other beyond our superficial differences.

Q: How can we help change the trend of the disproportionate number of Black people affected by COVID-19?

CHRISTOPHER: First and foremost, we must deliver vaccines to those communities at greatest risk. We must penetrate the African American community with access to vaccines. That’s our best hope to stop the continued spread. We also must look at exposure based on their jobs, particularly for the essential workers and do a better job at providing PPE and minimizing overall risk. We also have to address the devastation. The economic devastation, along with housing and job losses. We must take advantage of this moment and rebuild a social infrastructure that works for all.

FRASER: Three things. First, we can invest in building healthy and resilient communities—like our ASTHO Challenge. Second, we can support policies that keep people healthy in the first place. While neither of these strategies is racially specific, when we build healthy and resilient communities, we promote the conditions that assure optimal health for all. When we push forward policies that promote health—such as paid sick leave—we help everyone stay healthy. Finally, we can address racism as a public health issue, look for meaningful ways to eliminate racism, and promote racial healing and transformation. Our draft ASTHO policy on Addressing Racism as a Public Health Issue going to the Board of Directors this month has some great recommendations on how health officials can create meaningful and lasting impact to address health disparities of all kinds—not just COVID-19.

Q: If you could have dinner with someone who was a pioneer for civil rights, who would it be and why? What would you ask him/her?

FRASER: When I was in graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for a faculty member who was doing qualitative analyses of letters that Americans wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. We read hundreds of letters archived at the King Center in Atlanta. That research was really cool – and I got to know about many civil rights pioneers through that research. So, I will always have a fondness for Dr. King and would have loved to have met him in person. I’d ask him what he thought about our current work of racial healing, and how we can move our health equity agenda forward. I’d also ask him how he stayed so persistent and so focused in his life, that is a quality about his leadership I admire a great deal. He is an inspiration to me, and one of my heroes.

CHRISTOPHER: Nelson Mandela. I’ve read all of his books and I think he was just amazing. I would ask him where he got the inner strength to lead with such grace. I would also want to know in what ways that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fell short for him, and what lessons from that he has for the U.S.

Q: As CEO of ASTHO, one of your top priorities has been diversity, equity, and inclusion. You’ve also promoted and supported a culture of health equity and how policies and practices can impact people differently. These are difficult conversations. Can you talk about why this is so important?

FRASER: Gail Christopher and her team have taught us so much about how to address the myths and false narratives around race, and how we have to move beyond false narratives about racial hierarchy if we are going to advance as a nation, and a world. That means we have to have conversations about race at ASTHO to build an inclusive staff community that values everyone. It is important to have difficult conversations about race because without them we will never change these myths and false narratives. We all internalize racist beliefs and we participate in systems that implicitly, and explicitly, systematically discriminate against people of color. We have to talk about that, while that’s very hard, if we are going to heal and to understand each other and the unique gifts we all bring to our work. Through those conversations we get to transformation and ultimately change. So, I’m committed to that process because I know it will make ASTHO better and allow us to create an even better workplace culture that will make us even more successful in the future.

Q: What do you want people do know who are just starting down this road of racial equity?

CHRISTOPHER: My daughter has just published a book, The Sum of Us, that’s already become a best-seller. She’s added to my life’s work. It’s a powerful call to unite as a country. It brings me to tears to see the way it’s been received.

I would say it’s also important to recognize we’re a young country, we are still becoming. There must be a certain amount of humility about the youthfulness of our nation. We’ve got some big birthmarks that are not pretty. We have to understand that these must be redressed and recognized, and that’s important to everyone. It is all our work, but we have to do it in ways to unite us.