Channté Keith is director of operations for The Center for Black Health & Equity, an advocacy group based in North Carolina that addresses tobacco and cancer health disparities affecting African Americans. Keith travels across the country to provide training and technical assistance to federal and state agencies, faith-based institutions, appointed and elected officials, and historically black colleges and universities.
Interact for Health: The Food and Drug Administration's recent decision to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes marks a major victory for your organization and the African American community. How will this victory change your mission and goals?
Keith: Although the FDA’s decision is a major win for public health and the Black community, we can’t depend on the FDA’s regulatory process to immediately fix tobacco use in our communities. It may take a few years for menthol products to be taken off the shelves. Our communities are suffering and dying from tobacco use now. The center remains committed to working at the local level to get flavor restrictions that include menthol passed. We are using a community-centered approach to address menthol, and we believe that policy change at the local level will continue to put pressure on the FDA to follow through on its decision to ban menthol cigarettes along with little cigars and cigarillos.
Interact for Health: What is the center doing to address the impact of COVID-19 on the African American community?
Keith: The center is working with its national network of partners to address COVID-19 at the community level. We have implemented a program called Communities Conquering COVID-19 in which our partners have distributed food, masks and hand sanitizer to thousands of families. Our partners have also provided COVID-19 testing and served as vaccination sites. Further, we have actively promoted campaigns such as Know Your 3W’s, which encourages people to wear their masks, wash their hands and wait 6 feet apart (socially distance). The center also launched our campaign called the COVID Big Quit. Since being a current or former cigarette smoker increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the COVID Big Quit urges smokers to quit smoking to help mitigate the severe outcome of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
The center facilitated a webinar series called Amen to Action, in partnership with the North Carolina Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, the International Health Commission of the AME Church and the Louisiana Urban League Guild. It discussed a range of topics including the COVID-19 vaccine and the social, mental and economic impact that COVID-19 has on our communities. Lastly, the center has received national recognition for its partnership with the American Lung Association for developing a toolkit called Power and Immunity. This guide helps to clarify scientific facts, dispel myths and answer key questions about the vaccine.
Interact for Health: What motivates you to go to work every day?
Keith: I’m passionate about the work that I do. I’ve seen the impact that the center is making toward addressing disparities, and our successes give me the boost I need to continue to do the work every day. In this role, I get to address multiple health challenges that face our community including tobacco use, cancer, HIV, food and nutrition, and mental health. I’m especially passionate about addressing health challenges that have a disparate impact on Black women. I’m a breast cancer survivor and I suffer from uterine fibroids. This work allows me to raise awareness about both issues and work on solutions to mitigate the devasting impact of breast cancer and uterine fibroids.
Interact for Health: What are your professional priorities for the next year?
Keith: They include continuing to strengthen the infrastructure of the center so that the organization can successfully grow in staff, partners, programs and policy initiatives. I will also continue to manage the day-to-day operations of the organization and create internal processes that help the organization achieve its short- and long-term goals.
Interact for Health: You have been championing health issues that impact the African American community for more than 15 years. What are some of the things you have learned from the experience?
Keith: Policy change and the benefits from it takes time. For example, the fight to ban mentholated tobacco products because of its disparate impact on the Black community is a movement that started in the 1990s.
Programmatic and policy initiatives are successful when they are community-centered. The center recognizes that economic, environmental and social challenges are interdependent, complex and ever-changing. We advocate for policy solutions that are rooted in local knowledge and led by community members. This approach has led to meaningful and impactful initiatives that will ultimately improve the health of Black people.
There has been great progress in addressing health disparities in the Black community. However, there are challenges that continue to persist and threaten to undermine the progress made and exacerbate some of the health conditions that plague our communities. The most pressing challenge is systemic racism.
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