Professor: Inform, Engage Can Solve Health Inequity

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Harvard professor David R. Williams discussed early childhood and social determinants at a Dec. 8 Health Equity Summit in Providence. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Harvard professor David R. Williams discussed early childhood and social determinants at a Dec. 8 Health Equity Summit in Providence. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Some Rhode Islanders clearly have it better than others. Across the state there are stark differences in health and environment. African-Americans have twice the infant mortality rate of Caucasians. Non-high-school graduates live seven fewer years than those with college degrees. More than half of Native American children live in poverty.

To address these social-justice issues, experts at the recent 2016 Health Equity Summit explored ways to increase access to the programs and institutions that allow more people to enjoy longer and healthier lives.

Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH), said health equity can be achieved through small steps in each community that expand the public’s understanding of the issues.

David R. Williams, Harvard University professor of African-American studies and sociology, said one solution is staying informed and engaged.

“We have to stay engaged, and we need to think of how creatively we can inform others,” Williams said. “If people are fully informed, they act in their own interest. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I think we need to figure out how we can engage with communities and have people informed and exercise the voice that they have and still live in a democracy.”

Voting is part of the solution. But more than 40 percent of Americans didn't participate in last month's election.

“There are consequence when we don’t (vote),” Williams said. “Part of communicating empowerment and community development is to make people aware that your vote does matter.”

Reducing violence is also vital. One answer is improving early-childhood education and providing mentors for single-parent boys. “They are failing academically when the only option for them is a life of crime," Williams said.

One of the hurdles is unconscious bias. Studies found that people show more empathy for their own racial groups. But the media also contributes to bias, Williams said. “Part of that is linked to the images in our subconscious that makes us have a greater emotional attachment to what happens to subgroups versus others," he said.

Julia Gold, DOH’s climate-change program manager, said climate change is contributing to health inequity. Rhode Island, she said, is on a track to be a different place by 2100. By then, the climate will be like southern Florida's. The sea will be 7 feet higher.

During the past 50 years, Rhode Island also has had the highest increase in extreme precipitation. Drought is hurting water supplies, and hurricanes are more extreme.

Seasonal allergies are worsening because of higher pollen counts, as a higher concentration of carbon dioxide is causing plants to increase pollen production. Warmer weather lengthens both the pollen and mosquito seasons. The territory for ticks with Lyme disease has expanded dramatically during the past 25 years, according to Gold.

It's imperative to take steps to reduce climate emissions, she said.

"This is completely dependent on the action we all take,” Gold said. “If we can take action today ... we can see a difference here."

Rhode Island is already seeing progress through health equity zones. This work includes new infrastructure, and neighborhoods that are cleaner and safer, and better equipped for heat and flooding. The work also includes proving places for recreation and community interaction.

Groundwork Rhode Island is already improving health equity while creating jobs and increasing community interaction. The predecessor program, Groundwork Providence, provides job training through landscaping crews, school-based green teams, a tree nursery, and a community garden and greenhouse. The organization also designs and installs stormwater collection systems.

“We’re trying to instill a passion for the natural environment in students at a very young age so that when we grow up they already have those ideas and this type of mindset already in them,” said Amanda Baez, program coordinator for Groundwork Rhode Island.