As we come to the end of Black History Month, we recognize the historical and transformative contributions that Black public health professionals continue to make to improve community health. Greater diversity in public health means greater cultural competency when addressing the health needs of an individual and a community. When Black people see themselves reflected in the public health system, they are more empowered to engage with it and participate in programs and services to improve their own health, which in turn, contributes to improved health outcomes overall. In the spirit of empowering more Black community members to enter the public health workforce and inspire them to become change-makers, we interviewed a public health leader, innovator and Heluna Health Board Member, Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.
Dr. Edwards offered to share her reflections and career advice to empower the next generation of public health professionals to lead with conviction, end institutional discrimination, and make meaningful change. Here is what she had to say about her remarkable career:
What inspired you to start working in public health?
I initially went to school thinking I was going to be a psychiatrist or a medical doctor. I was interested in severe neurological diseases. But after these experiences, I became astutely aware that the challenges caused by the social, economic, and political environment were just as impactful on the health and well-being of people who had psychosocial issues as neurological diseases or mental and behavioral health issues that they were being treated for. I became more interested in public health policy and the political and social determinants of health than the physiological.
What skills and traits helped you advance your career in public health?
I was fortunate enough to be in the right places at the right time. The skills that helped me were curiosity, willingness to network with people who are diverse and interesting and influential, genuine interest in making the world a better place, and love of politics. I am also an excellent analyst, writer, and advocate for those who do not have a voice.
What career accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
The two things that stand out for me are the policies that I was able to influence. While living in Florida, I worked with a rock star team of people who helped orchestrate the foundational elements for the HITECH act adopted by the Bush administration to advance the adoption of electronic medical records. Secondly, while serving in the State of Georgia, I had the privilege of advancing a funding bill that allowed for the reimbursement of hearing aids and hearing devices, which my son was able to benefit from. These two things remind me of how important teamwork, advocacy, and vision are to implementing change. I have worked with some phenomenal leaders.
What obstacles, if any, have you faced as a Black woman working in public health?
Honestly, I was a lot more comfortable in my skin when I worked in public policy. Working in the healthcare ecosystem that I work in now, where relationships and decisions are based on financial transactions, is a lot more uncomfortable. While working in public health, I was more likely to have advocates and employees, and even legislators that looked like me and cared about the same things I cared about, regardless of their race or gender. What I have experienced in the “corporate” sector has been isolation, constant questioning of my capabilities and intellect, and my own personal values conflict. I believe healthcare should be available to all, regardless of their ability to pay, and it should be equitably delivered. But that is not the system we have, and it is hard for me at night to deal with the incongruence between my own values and the system. I feel like I need to be in the room to make a change no matter how small.
What leadership advice would you give to professionals looking to make an impact in public health?
My leadership advice is this: change comes from being in a position of influence, so you have to be in the room where decisions are being made if you want to be an influencer of policy. Do your best all the time and don’t be afraid to advocate for what you believe in. Make sure you have the data to back up your assertions and your peeps or tribe are with you. If you want to work in the community and provide direct services, then do that with vigor and don’t worry about the masses. Simply treat one person at a time. Treat everyone with love and respect and give them your all.
Why is it so important to have more Black public health workers in the US, particularly in leadership positions?
It is important to have people who care. We need professionals who want to end institutional discrimination and who are anti-racist. We need people who can see beyond the mistakes a person has made in life to the circumstances that led them down that path. Unfortunately, it seems as if only Black folks, or those who are most likely to experience the hardships that come from racism, are the ones who care the most, so if that is the case (which I’m not sure I believe) then, we need for those who care to band together and create new policies, new ways of serving, and end the disparities in outcomes that are keeping Black people from being their best selves. We must serve our community and we must work together to change the social, political, and economic environment if we truly want to improve the public’s health.
Dr. Edwards’ accomplishments in public health provide a bold example of the importance of having Black leaders who are bold change agents positioned to help produce stronger, healthier and more inclusive communities. Her approach, embraced by more public health professionals around the United States in the past two decades, has contributed to the reduction of some key disparities. While the gap between all-cause mortality between Blacks and whites remains high, this disparity narrowed, for example, between 1999 and 2016, particularly for senior Americans aged 65 and older. A great step, though, the problem of health inequity for Black Americans persists. With professionals like Dr. Edwards leading the way, one can envision a world where health inequities based on race become the legacy of a distant past.