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An Equity Conversation with Cornell Wright

By Danielle Sherman on January 24th, 2018

The North Carolina Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NC OMHHD), established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1992 and part of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.

As I reflected on equity in the new year, I called upon Cornell Wright, advocate and Executive Director of the NC OMHHD, to celebrate the anniversary and discuss all things equity.

What motivates you about health equity work right now?

I aspire to provide a consistent message of health equity in my personal and professional spaces by creating a more centralized conversation and resource list. The language we use in our work is key, and if used carelessly, it can actually make people sicker. For example, to say our goal is to eliminate health disparities period is a dangerous statement, because it places the focus on closing the gap, rather than on achieving health equity. Instead, our goal is to eliminate health disparities by using health equity strategies so that we are providing a fair opportunity for good health for all.

How do you see folks addressing the difference between health equity and racial equity?

In the health field, it’s hard to get away from race and ethnicity because of all the racial and ethnic disparities. Having a colorblind perspective is harmful. The effects of what we don’t call a real thing are still real. NC OMHHD serves as a liaison between those working on racial equity and health equity. And many local health departments are having conversations about how they can incorporate equity into their work. For example, Durham County Department of Public Health has been helping state public health leadership and staff participate in The Racial Equity Institute trainings. The Chatham County Public Health Department has also been receptive to doing work in equity and coalition building.

How have you seen approaches to equity change over the years?

In the past, I worked as an Outreach and Screening Patient Navigation Coordinator for the Duke Cancer Institute’s Office of Health Equity and Disparities, so I’ve been involved along the continuum of care, including my current role working on prevention in public health. I’ve seen the conversation around health equity become less taboo in the hospital setting, which is crucial to creating fair and just treatment of all patients.

There is a vital health equity lesson for public health to gain from the hospital’s patient navigation system: various departments and organizations work together to guide patients through and around barriers in a complex system in order to improve care and coordination of services. So, it’s beneficial for public health to work together with various sectors and organizations (e.g., health care, community- and faith-based organizations, academia, education, social services, etc.) to create more equitable outcomes for communities. Like in a relay race, each runner needs to hand off the baton to the next runner in order to finish the race. Multidisciplinary partnerships and coalitions need the strengths and resources of all their parts to create change.

Could you share a little more about how the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities approaches this work?

We often say that the work that we do should be palatable for community consumption. So we make sure to provide opportunities, resources, and plain-language definitions for people to understand the complexities of terms like minority health, health disparities, social determinants of health, equity, health inequities, health in all policies, and culture—and how they all play a role in systems and how community resources are distributed.

Specifically, we focus on research and data (developing a 2018 Health Equity Report building off of the 2010 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in North Carolina report), culture and language (providing cultural competency and health equity trainings, and advocating for language services), policy and legislation, partnership development (partnering with local health departments on the NC Minority Diabetes Prevention Program), and advocacy (conducting presentations and workshops, such as the Health Equity Lunch & Learn Series). At the close of 2017, we recognized the efforts of individuals and organizations working to reduce health disparities and promote health equity across the state in our first NC Health Equity Impact Awards.

What are a few key lessons you have for others doing this work?

It’s important to remember and honor the resilience and cultural identity of communities as examples of success.

We use the term “relationship rhythms” when speaking about community engagement. It’s about timing and relationships, and if you aren’t careful in your efforts, you can disrupt communal relationships.

And self-care is tied to equity. Creating boundaries, taking care of your mental, emotional, and physical health, doing things that make you happy—are crucial to being able to build and maintain a strong foundation and identity, which this work draws upon.

Danielle Sherman

Project Manager

Community advocate, planning superstar, and work-life balancer.