By: Dorothy Rawleigh, CHES
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
This quote by civil rights activist Audrey Lorde was heard numerous times at the 39th Annual Minority Health Conference that took place on Friday, February 23rd in Chapel Hill. Lorde’s message is a reminder that health issues, including air quality, are interconnected to health equity, racial and social justice.
ORISE/EPA researcher Ihab Mikati stopped by the MAHA exhibit table to share his recent research showing that air pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color. Mikati spoke with MAHA volunteer and Public Health Educator Dorothy Rawleigh about his recent publication in the American Journal of Public Health. According to his study, people of color encounter more air pollution than white people and these disparities are more pronounced for blacks than are disparities measured solely on the basis of poverty. Mikati’s study adds to the already extensive research showing that these disparities in exposure persist and contribute to health disparities in cardiovascular, respiratory and other illnesses.
During the keynote address, Monica Raye Simpson captivated the audience as she delivered her lecture, “Achieving Health Equity and Justice Through the Reproductive Justice Framework.” Simpson is the Executive Director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. During her lecture, Simpson challenged public health professionals to approach health equity through a social justice lens. This perspective is necessary, she said, in order to dismantle the institutionalized racism that causes pervasive health disparities in our country. “The vision for reproductive justice is when all people have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families and all areas of our lives,” she said.
The theme for this year’s Minority Health Conference was “Reclaiming the Narrative” and Simpson did just that with her moving description of growing up in rural Union County, North Carolina. She recalled that members of her black community often faced challenges accessing health care from not only a lack of affordable services and transportation but also from a fear and mistrust of the medical community that was rooted in economic, social, and institutional discrimination. “We have to look at how all of these issues impact our ability to make decisions about our lives and live our healthiest lives,” she said. “Intersectionality is the process. Human rights is the goal…” added Simpson.
Other attendees at the conference included medical and public health students and professionals, asthma educators, human rights law students and community leaders. At the MAHA table, Rawleigh discussed how medical and health professionals can be powerful and successful advocates for clean air policies across the state. Visitors also learned about MAHA’s recent win for clean air through the development of a clean construction standard in partnership with Novant Health and Atrium Health. The new standard requires the use of low emission equipment and discourages unnecessary idling at future facilities.
The conference focused on the power of storytelling. Conference sessions included topics on community and health advocacy skills building; stories about community resiliency in the face of natural disasters; the impact of public spaces on community narratives, and using technology and data to promote health equity.