Leading Health Equity in a Time of Upheaval

June 04, 2020|4:15 p.m.| Mary Ann Cooney, MPH, MSN | Chief of Health Equity

Over the weekend, I watched in absolute horror the video of George Floyd’s murder. As a parent, I couldn’t imagine the difficult conversations that Black and brown parents were having with their children trying to explain the unexplainable—the fear for their well-being and safety—or the weariness of having those same conversations. I was faced with my own white privilege and the inaction of my generation to address the root causes of inequity, knowing that my sons will do a better job at fighting for racial justice.

As a lifelong public health professional, I am troubled by the opportunities I missed to better address racial injustice. How could I have better described the impact that racism has on health? What programs did we develop that could have been more focused on health equity? Were the policies we created more harmful than helpful from an equity standpoint? This week has brought back memories of being 13 years old, sitting with my mother, and feeling the same sense of powerlessness while tearfully watching news clips of Martin Luther King’s assassination. For several days after MLK’s death, we sat in front of our black and white TV and watched civil unrest erupt across the country. We talked about race, injustice, and civil rights, and I tried to seek some understanding. Several decades later, the news is filled with people protesting and expressing legitimate anger and frustration. With hands held high in the air and chanting, “don’t shoot,” I see faces filled with a mixture of resolve and bewilderment. At the same time, I see strength.

While it is of utmost importance to learn from the past, I also know that today is what counts. As program chief for health equity, actions I’ll take today, tomorrow, and the days and weeks ahead will matter most. As part of a leadership team I’m accountable to move a health equity agenda forward—for both the organization and for our members. Our staff is, and always will be, ASTHO’s bedrock. ASTHO is an organization that embodies the values of respect, diversity and inclusion, and responsiveness. If we apply these values to improve our internally-facing equity work, our external equity work will follow. It’s on all of us to become the organization—and work “family”–we believe we are.

I often ask myself how I can work to bring this forward. But right now, “I” is only relevant in how I’ll work toward a better understanding and respect my own progress becoming an ally. “We” is the word that must take center stage for ASTHO to grow. Only by intentionally coming together to develop a culture of respect for each other will we develop a shared understanding of ASTHO’s ability to expand the ideals of equity—and especially racial equity. We must commit to this for the long haul. We must also accept without judgment diverse opinions and be welcoming of constructive criticism.

At the same time, I’m committed to supporting our members and providing technical assistance to grow their own health equity agendas. We need to look inward to what we can change in our own policies and practices, and commit to a strategy to build ASTHO’s health equity portfolio together.

There are new possibilities that exist for us personally and professionally at ASTHO. We have this moment to refresh, to listen and learn from each other. As an organization we can support each other now through this incredibly difficult time. We can work for our members in achieving health equity. It won’t be easy, and at times it may be extraordinarily difficult. After all, we are only human. If we are who we say we are, and if we are as brave as we can be, we can fulfill our vision for a better, more equitable, future.


Mary Ann Cooney, MPH, MSN, is the chief of health equity at ASTHO.