Meet the 10 experts examining health inequities through the lens of race, wealth and power in the documentary "Power and Health."
Martha Dina Arguello
They were part of the normal landscape, said Martha Dina Arguello in “Power and Health,” referring to the oil wells located near her high school when she was growing up. Years later, the longtime environmental justice activist and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, noticed a resurgence in health issues related to oil drilling in urban areas. There were complaints of bloody noses and headaches, signs of what she called an "emerging health crisis."
Arguello is also an organizer with STAND-LA, a group advocating for the end of oil drilling in the City of Los Angeles. The group has been involved in efforts to bring tighter restrictions for drilling in South Los Angeles. But, Arguello's work isn't limited to drilling. More recently, with Physicians for Social Responsibility, she's been looking at the connection between COVID-19 complications and neighborhoods with poorer air quality.
"Our health is not what it should be," but this wasn't always the case, said Sandro Galea in a 2019 talk. The physician and epidemiologist describes that it's only been in the past few decades that American health and life expectancy has declined. However, this can be reversed if the U.S. changes its approach to health.
In the late 1990s, Galea worked with Doctors Without Borders as the only doctor serving about 350,000 people in Somalia. It was through this experience that he began thinking about what’s at the root of health outcomes, including air quality, access to food and clean water.
Galea now serves as the dean and Robert A. Knox Professor at Boston University School of Public Health. He's a frequently cited medical expert whose work focuses on social epidemiology, health inequalities and health of vulnerable populations. In his book, “Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health," he exposes fundamental problems with health in the U.S., like an emphasis on health care instead of health that overlooks the environmental conditions that impact our well-being.
In "Power and Health," Camara Jones stresses an important point. "Race," she says, "is something that you're assigned." That's an important distinction, as she notes, because someone's perceived race might change depending on where in the world the person is living and that changes the advantages and disadvantages someone has in society.
Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist who has served as a president for American Public Health Association and is a senior fellow with the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Cardiovascular Research Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. Her work has looked closely and critically at the impact that racism has on health in the United States.
In the film, Jones shared an anecdote from her time in medical school that helped her understand how racism works. She was in a restaurant late one night and noticed the sign hanging on the door read “Open.” She was now eating in a restaurant that was closed to other hungry people who might have walked up. This “dual reality” showed her how spaces can be simultaneously open for some and closed for others.
There are two ways in which racism impacts health, according to Melissa Jones, executive director for Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII). One is the stress that racism can trigger, since stress has been shown to adversely affect one's health. The other is exclusion, as institutional racism excludes people based on race and that not only impacts the kind of health care people can receive, but all the environmental factors that contribute to one's health.
Jones has spent years working in both municipal government and nonprofit roles in the San Francisco Bay Area and has emphasized the role of social determinants — things like where people work and where they live — in people's lives. Health inequities today reflect multiple generations of decisions made by people in power when “a concern about equity was not a priority,” she says in “Power and Health.”
Bridget Kelly remembers her mother’s role as nurse being more comprehensive than the typical approach to health care today. “It was much more holistic, and much more thinking about where a person who came to the hospital had come from, and was going back to,” she said in an interview for “Power and Health.”
During training in both developmental biology and clinical medicine, Kelly began thinking about the systemic issues that impact health and turned her sights towards the policy of health. She co-founded the non-profit group Bridging Health & Community, through which she co-wrote the 2017 report "Fostering Agency to Improve Health.” Today she runs Burke Kelly Consulting, where among many initiatives, she provides services in COVID-19 response strategies and public health engagement.
Eric Liu suggests in “Power and Health” that you take a walk through your neighborhood. While you're walking, he advises you take note of the public transportation, homes, and local businesses available and ask yourself, who is making the decisions in your neighborhood?
"The question of who decides is at the very heart of understanding your own power," says Liu. When you understand who is making the decisions, you start to see why some neighborhoods are being gentrified and why others may have limited access to public transportation. It's knowing this that can help communities create change.
Liu is the former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and author of "Gardens of Democracy" and "You're More Powerful Than You Think." He is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University and was part of Seattle’s Fight For 15, which raised the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2014.
Maria Poblet spent her childhood in Argentina in the midst of the Dirty War, where she first came to understand power structures on the school playground. She moved to the U.S. at 13 and was inspired by the Zapatista Movement in the 1990s. She began organizing at the University of California, Berkeley, as part of a student solidarity committee for a United Farm Workers campaign for strawberry workers.
Poblet has been involved with a number of social justice organizations over the years. Notably, she was the founding director of Causa Justa in the San Francisco Bay Area, which merged multiple organizations to create a multi-racial coalition working towards housing and immigration rights. Currently, she is executive director of Grassroots Policy Project, which looks at power structures and develops and implements strategies creating change, whether that's through community organization or health equity.
Ryan Petteway's younger brother struggled with asthma when they were growing up. In “Power and Health,” he describes the triggers for asthma attacks in their neighborhood: poor air quality from living near an industrial area, as well as cockroaches, rodents and stress. Newer treatments for asthma attacks became available, but, he says, "that's not solving the problems."
Petteway, an assistant professor in the Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health, previously worked as an epidemiologist at the Baltimore City Health Department. Much of his work has looked at health in relationship to zip codes and public housing.
What can be done to foster healthier neighborhoods? As Petteway mentions in the documentary, simple decisions, like holding public meetings during hours when people are out of work, can foster more inclusive decisionmaking.
john a. powell
In a 2016 talk, john a. powell discussed how much of our world is shaped by the concepts of "otherness and belonging." Neighborhoods are shaped by those ideas, he explains, and so are politics, particularly in the current era.
A civil rights expert who previously served as the national legal director for the ACLU, powell is the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, which focuses on multidisciplinary research to build a more equitable society.
In "Power and Health," he describes how otherness and belonging impact health in ways people don't always recognize, especially if they are part of the dominant group. He shares an example from his childhood, when ads promoted “skin-tone” bandages, yet the white bandages never matched his skin tone. powell talks about the human need "to be seen" and the power that fills us when we are included and welcomed within our communities.
Doran Schrantz grew up in a rural Iowa town, where 1 1/2 years of strikes led to a loss of jobs and disempowerment. "The amount of shame and humiliation and grief that impacted people's lives was something of a backdrop of my upbringing," she says in "Power and Health." That experience prompted Schrantz to wonder, "If people had more power, would the story have ended differently?"
Today, Schrantz is the co-director of Isaiah, a non-partisan and faith-based group in Minnesota that focuses on social justice issues, including racial inequity, mass incarceration and, of course, health. Amongst their initiatives is Kids Count on Us, which works to improve access to child care and early education in Minnesota and helped stop a proposed cut to the state’s Child Care Assistance Program.