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Fund for Health Equity Summit Convenes Health Leaders from Across U.S.


Health Equity

(L to R) Panel participants Daniel Dawes, Dr. Regina Benjamin, Martha Dawson, and Gail Small participate in opening sessions of the Fund for Health Equity Summit on Dec. 12, 2023. The event gathered awardees that received grants from the Fund so they could share their learnings. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Hundreds of healthcare professionals from around the country converged in Santa Barbara, California, for a multi-day Direct Relief summit focused on advancing health equity in the U.S.

Direct Relief’s Fund for Health Equity provides financial support to community health centers, free and charitable clinics, educational institutions and other community-based organizations fighting the inequities that further health disparities. Since 2021, Direct Relief, through the Fund, has granted more than $42.5 million to 145 organizations across the U.S.

This week, representatives of these organizations are coming together to meet and share their learnings in Santa Barbara, California. Their efforts, which span the country, include serving refugee populations in North Dakota, providing medical translators in Tennessee, operating a mini nurses academy in Alabama, running a clinic focused on health and financial health in Mississippi, conducting street medicine outreach in Chicago, and offering indigenous health services on the Northern Cheyenne reservation.

The summit’s agenda includes sessions on diverse topics such as data-driven storytelling, community health worker strategies, mobile health services, street medicine, maternal care, mental health, and prevention strategies, all viewed through a health equity lens.

Dr. Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General during the Obama administration and Founder and CEO of BayouClinic in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, addressed the audience Tuesday morning, emphasizing the importance of health equity and the critical roles nonprofits play in advancing health equity.

Dr. Benjamin also serves on the advisory council of Direct Relief’s Fund for Health Equity.

“You are part of an entire movement to make this a healthier nation,” she told the audience.

The Fund for Health Equity gathered health leaders from across the country to share learnings. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Daniel Dawes, Senior Vice President of Global Health & Executive Director of the Global Health Equity Institute and Founding Dean of the School of Global Public Health at Meharry Medical College, delivered the keynote address examining the country’s 400-year history of health inequities.

The inequalities seen in U.S. society — past and present — were not an accident and will take concerted political effort to undo and rectify, he said.

Dawes spoke about the “political determinants of health,” constructed barriers that keep people from living healthy lives. Dawes stressed that effective policy change is essential for rectifying these long-standing issues. Social determinants of health, like access to housing, clean food and water, and timely medical care, are often discussed, but “underlying each one is a political determinant that we can no longer ignore,” he said.

Policies that intentionally excluded healthcare for people who worked in agricultural industries and as domestic workers, highway planning that placed roads through under-resourced communities, exposing them to air contaminants, and housing policies like redlining are all examples.

“Only policy can fix what policy created,” he said.

Dawes encouraged the audience to continue their work and pointed to examples of change occurring when policy and local efforts combine. “It gives me a sense of hope about how much we can accomplish together,” he said. “This movement is not for the faint of heart. It takes tremendous courage.”

Dawes also took part in a panel discussion on the importance of collaboration and proactive health strategies with Dr. Benjamin and two other advisors of Direct Relief’s Fund for Health Equity Advisors, including Gail Small, Head Chief Woman and citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and Martha Dawson, President and CEO of the National Black Nurses Association and Associate Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Dr. Benjamin encouraged the conference participants to continue the work at the local level.

“Leadership starts in this room,” she said.

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