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Q&A with Dr. Gail Christopher, Executive Director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity

Feb 14, 2020

Dr. Gail Christopher is the Executive Director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, an organization that promotes health equity by harnessing data, developing leaders and catalyzing partnerships. Dr. Christopher recently spoke with Interact for Health about the collaborative's work and her future vision.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about the goals and work of the National Collaborative for Health Equity?

Dr. Christopher: For almost two decades the leaders of the collaborative have recognized that communities have a clear sense of what they need in order to be healthy. Through our research we understood that the vast inequities in opportunities for health were tied to ZIP code. Our work began by organizing cross-sector partnerships to prioritize health policy issues that the community could work on to bring about the greatest and quickest results. Often these are not the kinds of policy priorities that would come automatically from legislators or even health policy leaders. We believe that local people, if given support and resources, will come up with priorities and strategies for taking action to change the environment and context for health equity.

Interact for Health: You began your current role in the fall of 2019. What is your vision for the collaborative as you lead the organization into a new chapter?

Dr. Christopher: For many years we used the term "disparity" before we evolved into using the word "inequity." I want our organization to continue to lead in not only identifying the role that historic and contemporary racism plays in creating inequity, but more importantly to focus on solutions. Part of my vision is to expand our networks that are willing to be proactive in helping our country eliminate the belief in a hierarchy of human value and its consequences. I want us to lead with love. Because ultimately if we don't care, we will continue to have these vast health inequities.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned throughout your career?

Dr. Christopher: People are motivated to act, both individually and collectively, based on their most deeply held beliefs and perceptions. As long as we believe in this hierarchy of human value, that some people don't deserve the opportunity for health, we're never going to get results. We have to bring people together and give them the tools and resources to learn how to relate to one another with compassion and understanding. We must create a culture that values health as well as the right and opportunity to health for everyone. This is fundamental to lasting change. 

I have also learned financial resources are critically important for community-based work. We must make multiyear, lasting investment in these efforts. These issues are not going to be solved with quick fixes. In fact, if you give a grant and ask to see change a year later that may increase anxiety and stress, which is a major factor for illness. Efforts for real change need to be collaborative and resourced realistically.

Interact for Health: What about your work excites you most?

Dr. Christopher: Seeing the next generation of leaders. A big part of our work is being a center for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Culture of Health Leaders program. It's exciting to see the next generation of young people. They bring an intolerance for the continuation of the absurdity of inequity along with creative new approaches. It excites me to see the intergenerational relationships where we get to share and pass on lessons learned over the decades.

I fell in love early on with the human body. Our ability to heal, restore and bring balance from within is amazing. I carry that respect and awe with me and look forward to sharing this with others as a motivation for deeper levels of self-care and less tolerance for inequity and the harm it brings.

Interact for Health: What do you see as the future of health equity work?

Dr. Christopher: I see health equity being right at the center of our discussions of health and health care. I see people understanding that there is a continuum. That in fact access to quality health care is a social determinant. We spend more on health care than any of our peer nations and continue to have worse health outcomes. I believe part of this is our basic approach that doesn't take into account the adversity, trauma and racism that makes for greater vulnerability and reduces our capacity for healing, health and balance. I think we are moving into an era of racism-informed care and equity-informed care. I see other fields such as social work and public health connecting those dots as well. I see more collaboration across disciplines and policy areas. I am really optimistic about the future.  

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