The Public Health Law Center is committed to co-creating healthier, more equitable communities with our partners and allies. The roots of racism and other forms of systemic bias and oppression are deep. Laws and policies have contributed to significant disparities by failing to protect, and often actively harming, groups who are socially and economically marginalized. As professionals working with law and policy, we strive to center equity across our work in support of policy change that leads towards a more just and equitable world.
(Developed by the Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute
and used on our website with permission)
We believe that law and policy are essential tools for improving public health. Laws influence where we live and shape the quality of our physical environments (Is the tap water safe to drink? Are we breathing clean air? Is it safe to walk outside?). Laws can restrict or expand the choices and opportunities available to us (Can we get appealing, nutritious food? Can we get a job that pays a living wage? Do we have safe and affordable housing?).
We also know that law and equity do not necessarily go hand in hand, especially when it comes to the social determinants of health. Too often, laws and policies have caused oppression and inflicted trauma, and have contributed to entrenching and deepening racism and other inequities, instead of eradicating them. We recognize that the Public Health Law Center is located within the traditional homelands of the Dakota people, and that the land we currently occupy comes with a legacy of genocide and trauma caused by U.S. law and policy applied to American Indians.
We are challenging ourselves to hold this complex understanding of law and policy in our minds as we do our work, better maintain a core focus on equity and justice, and become better partners at co-creating1 healthy communities for everyone.
We don’t see ourselves as experts. As we weave the principles of equity, inclusion, and belonging1 throughout our work, our privileges and biases may affect our success. We invite your perspectives, comments, and suggestions, and we promise that we will continue to invest in our education and training.
Our evolution towards equity and belonging started with projects addressing commercial tobacco addiction in people experiencing homelessness, incarcerated youth and adults, and populations with mental health and substance abuse issues. In other early projects, we researched the Randolph-Sheppard Act and the role of blind vendors in supporting healthy food in public places, and began working closely with Tribal public health advocates on smoke-free policies and Tribal food systems. As we have become increasingly mindful of how we apply—or missed opportunities to apply—equity principles to our work, we have pushed ourselves to take a more systemic approach.
In 2012, as we launched our U.S. Food and Drug Administration Tobacco Project, we set out to re-think our commercial tobacco control priorities, and contacted groups representing and working with marginalized communities for their recommendations. Several groups spoke of the urgency of eliminating menthol flavored tobacco products, which are targeted toward African American, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ populations. We listened and learned, and made menthol our commercial tobacco team’s top priority.
We also worked to be effective allies for Tribal public health groups and advocates. This included staff auditing law school courses in both Tribal code drafting and federal Indian Law, participating in Tribal public health conferences to learn about Tribal public health priorities, and requiring our entire organization to participate in a series of trainings to increase our capacity to be a more effective, respectful, culturally-aware, and supportive partner to American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
As our thinking has deepened and matured, we realized we needed to revolutionize how we think and work. We needed an institutional commitment, and a formal body to support the work and hold us accountable. In 2016, we created an Equity Committee, comprised of staff from all teams within the Center.
We also began working with a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant. She audited our practices and performance as an organization, and conducted a series of trainings for our entire staff around inclusive program development and communication. Training topics included expanding diversity across our staff, understanding and challenging implicit bias, recognizing micro-aggressions, and cultivating emotional intelligence.
In 2018, we launched a comprehensive Strategic Planning process to reimagine everything we do, and to set our course for years to come. That work continues, and is now guided by one overriding commitment: to put justice, equity, and health equity for all at the heart of our work. We are determined to find ways to ensure that equity is a core tenet of our programs, to infuse our recruitment and hiring processes with a commitment to equity and belonging, to attract and retain a more diverse staff, and to grow our relationships with leaders and community members who represent socially disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
OUR EQUITY COMMITTEE GOALS
- Work toward a shared organizational understanding of equity
- Identify opportunities for improving our capacity and commitment to address equity
- Provide a space for reflection, exploration, and personal and professional growth
- Be thought leaders in creating and implementing a plan to integrate equity into our internal (recruitment, hiring, retention, culture, funding, procurement, etc.) and external (partnership and program development, etc.) processes.
Our Equity Committee agreed on a set of definitions for key terms so that we could have a shared understanding of these terms and to facilitate transparency. The Equity Committee also decided that because racism is a driver of health inequities across all identities, a focus on race should be explicit, but not exclusive.
Equity is achieved when we cannot predict outcomes by race/ethnicity or other demographic identity factors. For example, equity will exist in high school graduation rates when we cannot predict that any given group has a better chance for this achievement than any other.
Health equity is achieving a high standard of health for everyone in a community while at the same time concentrating on populations within that community that are at a disproportionate risk for poor health because of social factors.
Equality is achieved when individuals or groups of individuals are treated equally and no less favorably, including areas of race, gender, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and age.
Racial justice is a proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all.
Racism is often viewed as being primarily the result of individual action: personal prejudices or stereotyping, and intentional acts of discrimination by individuals. However, racism is also seen as a set of societal, cultural, and institutional beliefs and practices that benefit one race by subordinating and oppressing another. The definition of racial justice addresses both of these perspectives, considering individual acts of prejudice as only one dimension of racism.
SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH
Social determinants of health are “the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.”
SOCIALLY DISADVANTAGED AND MARGINALIZED GROUPS
Socially disadvantaged and marginalized groups are groups of people who systematically experience unfavorable social, economic, or political conditions based on their relative position in social hierarchies. Socially disadvantaged and marginalized groups often also experience a restricted ability to participate fully in society and enjoy the benefits of progress.
We’re still learning, but we are committed to continual improvement, and we’re looking for employees, partners, and friends to walk with, to challenge us, and to work with us to create opportunities to co-create healthy communities where we all can belong.
For more information about health equity within the work of the Public Health Law Center, visit our Health Equity and Policy page.
1The concepts of co-creating communities and focusing on belonging come from the work of john a. powell. See john a. powell, Building Belonging in a Time of Othering, Other & Belonging Conference 2019 (April 9, 2019), https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/video-building-belonging-time-othering-john-powell