Can you tell me about your background and your path in science—from medicine to public health to where you are today?
I’ve always liked science. I attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan, where I was enrolled in a college prep program called the chemical-biological curriculum. There I was exposed to science of diverse disciplines in my classes, and I continued on that path from high school to undergrad, where I earned my BS in the biological sciences. I always knew that I wanted to apply my knowledge of science to help people, and therefore, I eventually attended medical school, which was a good experience learning how to apply the basic sciences to help people. I also found out that I enjoyed helping not just individual patients but the population as a whole, so I then earned my master’s degree in public health.
I was always active in church, and eventually, I responded to the calling on my life when I entered ordained ministry. I am now involved in the AMEC International Health Commission, engaging in health and wellness. I also enjoy teaching at Wayne County Community College District, transforming lives as I prepare students to excel in their future careers pertaining to healthcare and other science-related fields.
What are the AME Church and the International Health Commission?
The AME Church was founded over 200 years ago by Richard Allen, who was born a slave and was eventually able to purchase his freedom. The AME Church was founded not due to theological differences from other denominations, but based on social justice issues affecting the social, spiritual, and physical wellbeing of all individuals. I have learned how social justice issues influence the health status of communities through the social determinants of health. As a local health director affiliated with the AMEC International Health Commission, I have learned how to apply social determinants of health to uplift the wellbeing of the African-American community. This knowledge has strengthened my understanding of the importance of ministering to the social, spiritual, and physical development of all people, which not only is the mission of the AME Church, but compliments the definition of health according to the World Health Organization.
The AME Church, which has diverse divisions of operation, includes the International Health Commission. Presently, we are partnering with the American Heart Association to teach in various regions throughout the country how to embrace a healthy lifestyle. This includes information about nutritious meals, and basic anatomy and physiology of the heart and muscles.
Being ordained in the AME church was the natural evolution of my work in public health. I don’t think I will ever be a pulpit minister preaching weekly as a pastor, but my role is to uplift the welfare of the community through health and wellness. Our executive leaders in the AMEC International Health Commission are all ordained clergy with advanced professional backgrounds in healthcare.
What are “social determinants of health”?
It means that your overall well being is not just dependent on your physical health or your physiological makeup—the conditions where you are born, grow, live, work, and age can also determine the quality of your health. For example, two young children may both have a genetic predisposition for asthma, but the child residing in a clean environment may not have many asthma-related ER visits, whereas the child growing up in a heavily polluted, industrial community may be more likely to experience frequent visits due to acute asthma attacks. I have learned in public health that your zip code often determines the length and quality of your life.
Accessible, healthy food is an important social determinant of health currently being addressed through the Healthy Living Program under the auspices of the AMEC International Health Commission, in partnership with the American Heart Association. Communities in the middle of “food deserts” often lack affordable and accessible healthy food; people then purchase whatever is easily available, which is often unhealthy. Unfortunately, these diets are associated with epidemics of preventable chronic disorders such as heart disease, obesity, and type II diabetes.
Educational attainment is also a social determinant that is strongly associated with the health of a community. High school dropouts are more likely to live in a “chronic survival mode” and be unable to financially afford to engage in preventative health; they are just trying to survive. They may have to work long hours in multiple low paying jobs that lack health insurance just to make ends meet. In contrast, high school graduates possess opportunities to pursue a postsecondary education, thus enabling them to more likely experience things like a higher socioeconomic status, adequate social support, adequate housing, accessible healthy food, hazard-free environments in residential and work conditions, and accessible, adequate health care. Educational attainment is a strong social determinant of health that many people do not realize affects the health outcomes of individuals.
How is your public health work connected to your faith and ministry?
They are closely related. My ministry in health and wellness reflects the mission of my church—it’s not just the elimination of diseases. I utilize my training in public health and Christian leadership to address preventable health-related issues affecting residents—especially vulnerable populations in my community—so there’s a strong overlap.
Many verses in scripture show that our overall well being is very important to God: the foods we eat, the state of our environment, and the presence of health equity. For example, Proverbs 1:3:
“Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them to do what is right, just, and fair.” (New Living Translation)
So to me, that means applying the positive social determinants of health to uplift the health and wellbeing of a community. That’s my overall goal.
Can you talk about some of your science education work?
The University of Michigan Center for Public Health and Community Genomics had a program exposing minority high school students in Detroit and Flint, Michigan to biological sciences (involving DNA, genetics, protein synthesis, etc.) which was very successful. I served as a community education associate for several years. As an African-American, it was important to me to encourage minority students that they could become scientists. Sometimes, I would unintentionally scare students just by calling them “future scientists,” so I realized that I should encourage them to embrace the field of science, to utilize science to uplift the quality of their health, and to become knowledgeable in those fields. During the program, we had student poster presentation competitions where they presented various topics they had learned during the program. Scientists from the NIH and Wayne State University also spoke to the students about their fields of study—it was amazing how students really gravitated toward the speakers.
I presently love sharing my passion of science to students enrolled in my introductory biology class at Wayne County Community College District. At one point in the semester, we dissect a pig, and a lot of the non-science majors start out very squeamish thinking that they could never do it; but then many of them end up loving that exercise more than anyone else in the lab! I love to see lives transformed by the knowledge of science.
What kinds of changes need to be made to improve health and health equality in our country, both on a community level and on a national scale?
The American Public Health Association is undertaking the ambitious goal of transforming the United States into the healthiest nation in one generation by 2030. This undertaking includes a national collaborative effort of many organizations, not just involving individuals with biomedical or clinical science backgrounds, but also people of diverse disciplines. The faith, education, biomedical research, and public health communities all work together to uplift the quality of health throughout our country. Many people know about the clinical aspect of health, but they don’t understand that the physical environment and social influences also determine the health status of a community.
It’s going to take a while, but I do believe that this change will come. It may require us to educate people about the complete definition of health: its relationship to science, to faith-based communities, educational communities, and involvement with federal and state policies. People must learn how individual and community health overlaps through multiple disciplines of study.
For example, I have attended meetings involving clergy in the Michigan chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival where we addressed the lack of accessible healthy water in the communities in both Flint and Detroit, Michigan. Along with over 100 other clergy of diverse dominations, I signed a petition advocating against a potential large-scale water cutoff, citing the act as inhumane—not only do we need accessible clean water for our bodies to operate at optimal capacities, but insufficient water may lead to environmental hazards, such as breakouts of infectious diseases. It took clergy working with community activists to successfully prevent the water cutoff affecting many residents. I have learned through this experience that it’s not just going to be doctors or scientists to help transform the health of our country.
On the other hand, we must continue to educate faith communities that they really have a strong impact on the health status of their parishioners—that sometimes you may be uplifting the quality of someone’s life without realizing it. You might not be a physician or nurse, but you can still help the spiritual, social, physical, or emotional growth of those you serve.
What is a challenge that you face in your work?
The biggest challenge for me is breaking down walls in order to teach the community that the physical environment and spiritual wellbeing influence the quality of their health, and to embrace the complete definition of health according to the World Health Organization. But I believe students are eager to learn and want to utilize their various gifts to help others. As a teacher, I see them blossom as class progresses throughout the semester as they start to understand how their knowledge and talents may be utilized to uplifting the quality of life in their communities.
I look forward to myself continuing to grow as a scientist, an educator, and a faith leader to help create healthier communities.