A Diverse Workforce Helps Health Departments Aim for Equity

A longtime Tennessee public health nurse working to increase vaccination rates for children ages 5- to 11-years-old. A pair of recent graduates contributing innovative ideas to a statewide health-equity initiative in Wisconsin. And the daughter of immigrants helping address the health needs of Nevada’s newly resettled Afghan refugees.

These are just a few of the 60-plus CDC Foundation employees working in the public health protection field as health equity project managers, providing wide-ranging support to health departments around the country to help community members live their healthiest lives, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status and more. And these staffers’ personal and career histories are just as varied as the programs to which they are assigned.

Health Equity Project Manager Afeefah Khan, serving with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Benjamin Johnson leads a discussion for a Growing Youth Leadership program at Walnut Way Conservation Corps.

Benjamin Johnson is a health equity project manager serving with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

“What I see for myself and my colleagues from diverse backgrounds, is that we can serve as a cultural bridge,” said Liliana Davalos, whose parents immigrated from Mexico and who is stationed with Nevada Governor’s Office for New Americans (ONA). “Understanding the background and the experience of the people in our specific communities allows us to effectively advocate for policies that are more equitable and promote services that are more accessible.”

Davalos, who holds a Master of Public Health degree, has been helping source health care for the 318 Afghan refugees who arrived in Nevada in the fall of 2021.

“We’re in the early stages of creating a forum that’s going to bring together the state’s refugee resettlement coordinators, insurance representatives, public health organizations and health care providers,” Davalos said. “There will be updates given and conversations surrounding how best to provide health care to our newcomers.”

Charina de Asis, Nevada’s ONA director, appreciates the assistance. “Liliana has made significant strides in moving the needle in regards to health equity in our refugee population,” she said. “Having the ability to designate focus on this population through the support of the CDC Foundation has been invaluable to our mission.”

What I see for myself and my colleagues from diverse backgrounds, is that we can serve as a cultural bridge. Understanding the background and the experience of the people in our specific communities allows us to effectively advocate for policies that are more equitable and promote services that are more accessible.

A Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WDHS) initiative with a similar goal, the Health Equity Assessment and Resource Team (HEART) aims to provide program support to a diverse sampling of local and tribal health departments across the state. A quartet of CDC Foundation health equity project managers is involved, including recent Howard University psychology graduate and Milwaukee native Benjamin Johnson and Afeefah Khan, who has a master’s degree in management and a degree in public health from the University of Michigan.

Johnson’s focus is on community outreach, while Khan is delving into social determinants of health (the economic and social conditions that can affect an individual’s ability to live their safest, healthiest life). The team recently came up with the idea to hold small group discussions with interested parties.

“We're trying to create a space for our locals to collaborate and share information as they're learning to advance health equity,” explains Johnson, “as well as finding ways to help our local and tribal health departments authentically and sustainably engage with the community.”

Project Supervisor Jill Groblewski of the WDHS’s Office of Policy and Practice Alignment is grateful to the CDC Foundation for the contributions of this team, whose “ability to help us support locals on the ground to advance health equity is crucial and critical.”

Public Health Nurse Jamila Batts is the health equity project manager working with the Tennessee Department of Health

NV Governor’s Office of New Americans staff (from L-R): Zuly Terrazas, Administrative Assistant; Grecia Perez, Skilled Immigrant Integration Program Manager; Charina de Asis, Executive Director; Augusta Massey, Health Policy Analyst; Liliana Davalos, Heal

Memphis-based Public Health Nurse Jamila Batts notes she has been working in health equity her entire career. “Just without that title to it,” Batts said, citing her involvement in immunization, maternal health, infant mortality and other campaigns. She completed a master’s degree in medical anthropology to better understand the wide range of communities she was seeing in her inner-city practice.

Now assigned to the Tennessee Department of Health, Batts is focused on vaccine hesitancy in the 5- to 11-year-old population. “We’re working with providers to understand what barriers they’re seeing and how we can help them have the tools they need when they’re talking to parents.” And after more than 20 years in the health equity space, Batts is well aware of the need for diverse viewpoints. “One thing I learned is that there's not one thing you can do to solve a health problem,” she said. “You need multiple views from diverse people with different perspectives to hit that issue from every angle.”

Khan agrees. “My work with HEART has shown me the power of diverse teams and how we all learn from each other; we each bring our own strengths through our backgrounds, skills, learnings and lived experiences.” Johnson also cites the intersectional nature of the work. “We recognize that health disparities are caused by interlocked, yet distinct factors, and effective and sustainable solutions come about when a diverse and broadly talented workforce is engaged.”

Davalos, also a certified community health worker and instructor, believes a career in public health is a way to make a real impact. “Your voice belongs at the table to ensure your community is spoken for and taken care in the most effective way," she said. “I think a lot about my parents and their generation who could have been left out of the system. I would say those communities need you now more than ever.”



This story is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $200,000,000 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.


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