Centering Black Experiences to Improve Health Equity

Back to Summer 2021: Volume 110, Number 2

By Keiva Hummel, Conor Kelley (with Grace LaMendola)

Melissa Robinson, of the Black Health Care Coalition based in Kansas City, Missouri, is the recipient of the 2021 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – National Civic League Award for Health Equity.

The award recognizes individuals who have successfully implemented a systems change approach to improving health outcomes for those most impacted by health disparities within the past two years. It celebrates those individuals working to create a culture of health in their communities through authentic resident engagement. The League views engagement as more than presenting information or having people respond to questionnaires (though both are important); instead, we promote efforts that seek to listen to, and learn from, residents in ongoing conversations and leverage those insights to shape the way programs are administered, designed, and executed.

Melissa Robinson is a champion and community leader who works with the Black Health Care Coalition, an organization that has a three-pronged approach to eliminating health disparities: advocacy, access to care, and health promotion activities.

Infant mortality, lack of inclusion in clinical trials, mental health inequities, generational obesity trends, lack of family planning resources, and, most recently, vulnerability to COVID-19—all these issues disproportionately affect people of color. Robinson’s work highlights the importance of authentically engaging Black people and the need to increase the nation’s attention to the inequitable health issues facing Black communities.

Robinson’s efforts include working to re-establish National Black Health Week (NBHW) as a week of national observance during the first week in April. Booker T. Washington first began National Black Health Week in 1915 to provide practical suggestions for health committees and improve health practices for Black people. One hundred years later, in 2015, Robinson re-established NBHW to raise awareness in communities and encourage health institutions to re-evaluate their own practices.

“[Washington] recognized the very inequities that many of us are coming to terms with because of a pandemic, but from a historical perspective,” said Robinson, “these disparities and inequities have always existed. It is our aim to make sure nationwide that we are recognizing National Black Health Week so that we can have a national agenda to eliminate health inequities within our community.”

NBHW elevates and implements solutions from African Americans experiencing health inequities. This initiative provides an opportunity to address issues impacting health equity through the lens of everyday individuals who are directly impacted by poor health outcomes. As part of this, her work starts with exposure to statistics, health outcomes, and information regarding root causes.

Access to care and accurate health care information is another major area of work for Robinson and the Black Health Care Coalition (BHCC). She emphasized the importance that people both know their biometrics numbers, and more holistically, that people “have a medical home.” As part of this, she works with community health workers and federally qualified health centers, to organize and train Health Ambassadors. These individuals go out into the community to meet people where they are, so they can provide services, training on health inequities, and build relationships with community members.

Each February, BHCC sets up health literacy stations at popular community locations such as churches, barber/beauty salons, grocery stores, and libraries, to engage participants in a day-long training to learn about health inequities. Participants from these events develop a cohort to collectively design programming for the target group(s) they directly influence. These programs debut during NBHW and typically run for six months.

This year, representatives from health literacy stations designed interventions that included the following features:

  • Increasing African American participation in research/clinical trials
  • Drive-through Community Baby Shower and Zoom parenting workshops
  • “Mental Health Matters” meetings that feature African American mental health providers
  • Families in the Park activities to address multi-generational obesity
  • Aging with Grace, which focuses on addressing older adult social isolation, brain health and heart health

Thanks to her work with National Black Health Week and improving awareness on the necessity of including those most impacted by health disparities, the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center has worked to increase Black participation in their clinical trials. In collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Center, BHCC has established a “Black Research Institute” to develop training specifically for lay/health ambassadors (barbers, beauticians, faith leaders, caretakers and others) to screen individuals for their risk of developing dementia.

Robinson has fostered an innovative strategy of multi-sector collaboration to implement important health promotion activities and community-based programs. One program that exemplifies this strategy is the “Have a Healthy Baby: Community Baby Shower,” which occurs several times throughout the year.

A local children’s hospital, Children’s Mercy, builds a volunteer opportunity among their nursing and physician staff to support the Community Baby Showers. During the events, an emergency room physician provides a hands-on activity with the expecting families to teach them the best ways to advocate for themselves and their children during a medical visit.

A local branch of UMB bank provides financial management training to all families that participate in the Community Baby Showers. It was during one of these events that a participant shared research which found that children with a 529 plan (a financial plan that saves for a child’s future) are seven times more likely to go to college than a child that does not have a 529 plan. One of the major barriers cited for those who do not enroll in a 529 plan is the impact on public benefits (namely, SNAP), since several people have been denied benefits because the 529 counts towards their savings. Robinson is working through the state legislature to remove this barrier.

One marker of success of the Community Baby Shower program is that ninety-eight percent of young families participating will have a child that has a healthy birthweight, which significantly decreases the chances of infant mortality. These Community Baby Shower events improve access to important resources and create a web of support for young families, which allows them to share ideas and support each other in preparation for becoming parents.

Another way Robinson has positively impacted her community is through a program called “Families in the Park,” which hosts community events that focus on intergenerational programming. Robinson works in conjunction with the health ambassadors to create fun and healthy activities in the Kansas City Parks system, including activities like a live DJ, kickball, parent/child races, line dancing, and aerobics.

The Families in the Park events have improved neighborhood experience in the parks and surrounding areas and have helped shift these public spaces to be places where residents feel safer and more willing to enjoy nature. The success of these events has led the Parks Department to develop a new master plan.

The health inequities facing Black communities are complex and intersectional and cannot be fixed overnight, which is why Robinson’s work is so vital and exemplifies how these challenging issues can be mitigated through education, awareness, re-evaluation of institutional procedures, and the centering of Black voices in health care solutions.

Her approach of enlisting professional organizations to engage with community members, not only allows for more information and knowledge to be shared, but it also encourages the development of new relationships. Robinson’s work gives other cities a valuable example of addressing health equity issues.

For her numerous contributions to improving health equity in the Kansas City community and beyond, the League is proud to award Melissa Robinson the RWJF-NCL Health Equity Award. She continues to focus on building up her community through inclusive programs for all ages and supporting people to lead healthier lives. Thanks to her work, Robinson is creating a safer and healthier community for everyone. During her acceptance speech, she said, “Remember, health equity is a lens for us to allocate resources, our aim is parity. Let’s move beyond health equity and apply equity because we want to achieve parity.”

View Melissa Robinson’s acceptance of the 2021 RWJF-NCL Health Equity Award:

Keiva Hummel is Civic Engagement Program Director at the National Civic League. 

Conor Kelley is working with the National Civic League on a Nevins Fellowship from Penn State University and is assisting in research for the League’s Civic Assistance, Solar power, and Civic Engagement programs. 

Grace LaMendola is a research intern at the National Civic League.

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