Alumni Profile: Dr. Torrie Harris, DrPH 2007

February 21, 2021

In recognition of Black History Month, the College of Public Health is sharing interviews with some of our outstanding Black alumni. We asked each of these individuals to reflect on the meaning of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their personal worldviews and in the field of public health. 

 

Dr. Torrie Harris, DrPH 2007 

Health Equity Strategist for the City of New Orleans Health Department 

 

What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you? 

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) can seem quite academic or seen as a corporate term making the matter of equality implicit instead of explicit. DEI positions are also often the responsibility of one person in an organization. For example, positions such as Chief Diversity Officer or Health & Equity Strategist (my own position title), are typically is occupied by a person of color, and their job responsibility is to change the organizational culture and system to make it more equitable. People who hold these positions are often oppressed by the same system they are working within. This often results in high turnover for these positions due to the amount of job-related stress associated with attempting to create change-alone. In the end, the organization may give up on making any strides in the space of DEI. Recognizing the potential hazards of being in this role with my own position, I have challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone. As an academician and a true public health practitioner I was used to writing proposals and creating a health equity to address inequities. I discovered these methods simply were not enough to change the culture of an organization or to close gaps in disparities. I found myself feeling frustrated and defeated, while the culture of inequity persisted. Thus, I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone to participate in an Equity Leadership Institute. Participating in the Institute was truly life changing as I was called to personal development by discussing my own traumas with inequity, in particular, racism. I also had the opportunity to be in community with other people who wanted to free themselves of perpetuating trauma and understanding their own privilege. We collectively built relationships and shared experiences that allowed for transformational change and a shared analysis around racial justice, health equity and power. I was given the tools to later build with the leadership team at the New Orleans Health Department. We are now on a journey together toward advancing equity. I recognized that this works takes a village of support, no one can do this work alone. 

To state it explicitly, DEI means to broaden power in collaboration with people of diverse racial backgrounds by including those groups who have been directly impacted by inequality, so that they have a seat at the decision-making table. I believe if we can address racial inequalities, we can concurrently address other disparities that reside between genders, sexual orientations, religions, and people living with disabilities, because racial inequality exists within each of these categories.  There must also be intentional commitment to making a safe space for conversation and listening. We must take time to hear one another and understand each other’s backgrounds and stories without rushing to the next logistical issue. A friend of mine who is a Healer in racial equity spaces said to me that, “Inequity thrives in us moving quickly, urgently, and outside of love. By minimizing a focus on equity, we can advance equity in a spreadsheet with no attention.” To me that means that DEI or equity becomes nothing more than an objective to be completed within a certain timeframe. Equality and equity require relationship and healing. After participating in the Institute, where we dug into those hurts and pains we have experienced from racism and inequality, I realized that we all hold onto denial about pain, and we move about our daily lives either blindly or ignoring our hurts-just not dealing with our issues. Though I experienced a range of emotions throughout my time in the Institute, I walked away feeling free, spiritually, mentally and physically. DEI is so much more than an academic term, it is freedom. If an organization takes time to build relationship with the goal of freedom and shared power, the possibility of equality is tangible.  

 

Why are diversity, equity, and inclusion important to public health?  

Former President Barack Obama said in a conversation with NBA basketball player LeBron James that, “The psychology of racism still exists in America…” So, despite laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enacted to fight against discrimination, and the Supreme Court Case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, where racial segregation was ruled unconstitutional, there is a still a culture of inequality that exists. We also cannot forget about prior centuries of racism and discrimination, which was codified into the U.S. Constitution and built into our health, justice, housing, economic, and education systems. Today, we see the impact of these former polices as health disparities, where the burden of disease is significant among communities of color and among low-income populations. Nancy Krieger said in the health documentary, “Unnatural Causes” that. “Our history is in our DNA”. Our history impacts our minds, our bodies, and our hearts. This is why diversity, equity and inclusion are critical to improving the public’s health. As public health professionals we have the power to create transformational change. We as professionals have an opportunity to look inward within our organizations and do the work of racial reconciliation and healing. We must be able to better reach our community and develop trustworthy relationships. We must push ourselves to listen to one another, be present with each other and rest in the uncomfortable conversations, so that we may rebuild systems that truly serve the public’s health for the better and we can see our families and communities thrive.  

 

How does your work contribute to the conversation regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in public health? 

Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, I had begun a second iteration of a health equity action team with the executive leadership of the New Orleans Health Department. Coming into the role of Health & Equity Strategist, there was an expectation of developing a health equity plan for the department, however; over time, team members lost interest in doing the work. This is common. Discussing equity is uncomfortable. After attending the Equity Leadership Institute, I learned new tools to build a safe space with the team, that included monthly sharing circles where we do exercises, that help to bridge relationships and understand each other’s identity. These circles encourage conversation and requires each of us to be intentionally vulnerable. This method seems to encourage more participation, while uplifting the value of relationship as key to equity.  Outside of the sharing circles, I advise the leadership team on how to integrate equity into all of our service programs.  

I have tried to incorporate sharing circles in all my work now, even with my students in the Master of Public Health in Health Equity program at Xavier University of Louisiana. Giving back to my undergraduate alma mater allows me to influence the next generation of public health professionals who are critical to the social justice movement. I also serve as a Board member on a number of community coalitions, like Making Connections, that focuses on Black Men and Boys Mental Health and the Louisiana Clinical and Translational Research Community Advisory Board. With these groups I serve as an advocate for community inclusion.  My work also includes working with the New Orleans Trauma-Informed Schools Collaborative to train school administrators on how to work with children who have been exposed to trauma and community violence.  

Recently, I was asked by the Mayor’s Office, in response to COVID-19 Pandemic, to provide an equitable recovery policy strategy, where I was able to discuss the impact of systematic inequities and provide assistance with how to reach disparity communities in New Orleans.  

I would be remiss if I did not mention the impact that my education at the UK College of Public Health had on laying the foundation for me to serve as a vehicle for change.  I was given the wings to fly and the latitude to explore my passion for health equity. I am able to contribute to the conversation today, because of the amazing classmates and professors that nurtured me to be a vigilante voice for equity.