Oct 09, 2023

Diverse Voices and Perspectives: People of Color in Public Health Leadership

Janice Blake, MPH

Janice Blake is the Senior Director in the Office of Workforce Development at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She is the Co-Chair of the National Consortium Recruitment and Retention Working Group.

Diverse voices and perspectives within the governmental public health workforce can help to ensure a health department’s eyes are open to pressing issues in the community that may otherwise have gone unseen. Even better, executive leaders with those voices, perspectives, and lived experiences can increase the likelihood that decisions about the allocation of resources — both financial and human — will effectively meet the distinct needs of the community.

Unfortunately — but not surprisingly — according to the PH WINS data released last summer, governmental public health is failing to elevate people of color to positions of executive leadership. While people of color make up 46 percent of the governmental public health workforce, only 31 percent of those in executive leadership positions are people of color. Relatedly, people of color consistently earn lower salaries and wages than their white counterparts — across the pay spectrum.

As industry professionals, we often speak about the importance of diversity in the governmental public health workforce. But we need to think beyond whether the departmental staff photo looks impressive and instead honestly ask ourselves whether the voices of those with Black and Brown faces, featured in that photo, are heard as loudly as they should be. The underrepresentation of people of color in executive leadership positions not only impacts the morale and sustainability of the governmental public health workforce, but it also affects public health outcomes.

While recruitment and retention policies and practices vary widely across public health departments and across the country, there are goals that we should all have in mind to remedy this existing disparity in leadership and compensation.

Be transparent about the skills required to advance. Information is a commodity. Do not hoard it; share it — equitably — with those who need it. If possible, before the position is publicly posted, ensure that the requirements for a position are communicated clearly to current staff. If it is a specific educational degree or a certification that is standing in the way of a staff member’s upward mobility, let them know.

Provide equitable opportunities for staff to develop needed skills. Hiring new staff is a costly and time-consuming process. Consider investing those resources to support current staff — particularly people of color — to progress along their career path within your department. Provide opportunities for internal and external classes and training. Assign staff to projects where they are able to stretch themselves and develop new skills through real-world experience. Serve as a mentor to staff as they learn new skills. Advocate for a staff member when a hiring decision is needed, even if elevating them to a new role could mean losing a great team member.

Adhere to job description qualifications when selecting candidates. If the reason you selected a candidate for a position is not reflected in the job description, you have unfairly moved the goal post. If, for example, the position suggests applicants should have a bachelor-level education, do not justify selecting a candidate because they have a master’s degree.

Be intentional about succession planning. Current executive leaders should be asking themselves who they are preparing to step into their role when it is time for them to move on. And they should be thinking about how to support a qualified person of color to be that successor. What skills should the successor possess? What opportunities can they be provided to support their professional development and growth?

Be vocal about the skills and accomplishments of people of color on your team. Let others — particularly executive leaders — know about the work staff of color are doing (and leading). Use meetings, hallway conversations, and departmental communications platforms to elevate their visibility. Say their name!

Be intentional about hiring a person of color. You need to be intentional if you want to hire a person of color, particularly if you have not had a person of color in that leadership position in the past. If you serve a community that is predominantly persons of color, does your full-time staff reflect that community? Likewise, what is the composition of your part-time staff? Your seasonal, grant-funded, temporary COVID-related hires? Equity requires intentional action.

The leadership disparities that exist in public health departments across this country are rooted in in structures that are deeply embedded in our culture and the history of this country. To improve public health outcomes in our communities and to recruit and retain a diverse and effective governmental public health workforce, we will need to dig deep to pull these inequities out by their roots. This work begins with you.


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