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Keeping Health Equity at the Forefront

February 25, 2021
by Nithyashri Baskaran

Assistant Professor Adjunct Tekisha Everette’s core passion is looking at ways in which U.S. policies are racialized and addressing their disproportionate impacts on the lives of minoritized individuals.

Her path towards this passion began long before her professorship at the Yale School of Public Health, her six years leading the nonprofit Health Equity Solutions (HES), and even her time in Washington, D.C. lobbying for state and federal health care policy at the intersections of race, class, and gender. It began in her childhood home, a space provided by her parents that fed her literally and intellectually.

“My biggest heroes, if I could meet anyone living or dead, would be Sandra Day O’Connor, Thurgood Marshall, Barbara Jordan – and my mom,” said Everette, Ph.D. “Those are the people who drove me into social justice and taught me to see the world through that lens.”

Everette’s time at Virginia Tech, where she earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees (political science and interdisciplinary studies) and a master’s degree in public administration, further developed her worldview, as she was taught by her now-hero in the professional sphere, Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni inspired Everette to acknowledge societal issues as they are, to be bold and honest about what she has to say, and to not apologize for it. Even now, Everette said, “I never leave a space without linking current issues to systemic racism that has existed.” This focus on macrosystems drives her current work at HES, through which she looks at the inequities that exist and the disparities connected to them.

While some of these disparities involve social determinants of health outside the health care system, like lack of access to transportation or food, Everette primarily analyzes those regarding the system and delivery of health care. For example, HES recently championed for certification programs for community health workers in Connecticut so they could be funded by Medicaid. This allows more people, especially those of racial minority groups, to access guidance in navigating barriers in health and health care. Such initiatives at HES rely on standardized, granular data that measures racial disparities and inequities so that HES can then produce interventions and track their efficacy.

Everette takes the same approach in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a member on Connecticut’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, she emphasizes measuring the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities in order to strategize access to vaccine distribution for the most marginalized groups. Everette said she recognizes that the data will likely show what is already known: that in a U.S. society that originated on and is continually driven by systemic racism, inequities observed among racial minorities before the pandemic will be the exact same observed throughout the pandemic if left unaddressed. This legacy of systemic racism, she says, has resulted in an overrepresentation of Black and brown individuals among groups facing the greatest risk of COVID-19, like essential frontline workers or those housed in congregate settings. Regarding comorbidities, Everette speaks from her own experience.

“Being a Black woman in the U.S. is a consistent experience with racial trauma and trying to battle with that; racial trauma and stress does not make the body a successful place to get over a virus looking for a place to thrive,” she said.

In recognition of Everette’s and Health Equity Solutions’ advocacy and leadership, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont earlier this month announced his administration was partnering with HES on an outreach program to ensure as many people as possible are provided accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccines, particularly communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted in access to health care. As part of the partnership, HES has developed a plan to contact over 10,000 people of color in Connecticut over the next three months to share facts and dispel myths about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“It was incredibly important to me that Health Equity Solutions not only identify the challenges to health equity but that we become a part of the solution,” Everette said following the announcement. “We wish there was not a pandemic at all, but we are ready, willing, and able to make sure that people have accurate information to make a timely decision that is best for themselves and their family.”

Once inspired by her childhood and college mentors, Everette now inspires students in her new course, “Advocacy and Activism”, as part of the U.S. Health and Justice Concentration at Yale School of Public Health (YSPH). Her course focuses heavily on the practical side of activism and uses readings as a starting point for community reflection and discussion. To this end, she advises her students to not be afraid to fail, and to instead focus on the joys of learning, contributing, and critically challenging norms even within themselves. She describes moments of partnership with professors and students —the very moments that gave rise to the course —as magical and expresses great appreciation for the support from fellow YSPH professors that she’s received while teaching so far.

In teaching “Advocacy and Activism,” Everette calls on the next generation to understand the story of activism’s past and to think critically and creatively to envision activism for the future. Everette encourages creativity beyond the classroom, too —especially when exploring food options throughout New Haven. She resoundingly recommends the lobster grilled cheese from Box 63, pasta from Tarry Lodge, the Thursday oxtail special from Sandra’s Next Generation, and enough fried dishes to feed four people from Kevin’s Seafood. Recalling her roots as a Southerner born and raised on the coast, she describes Kevin’s in particular as a special tie to her past.

From her tastes to her lifelong passions, some things about Everette have never changed.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on February 25, 2021