The pandemic has been felt more deeply in underrepresented communities, and every step in our nation’s collective response has shown how long-standing health, economic, and social inequities stubbornly persist. While equity, inclusion, and diversity bring benefits to every field and institution, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated an acute need for a more diverse public health workforce. When people with diverse personal experiences are in roles that contribute to culturally competent services, interventions, and programs, they are able to shape innovative public health approaches.
To bring more of these valuable experiences and voices into public health, Kaiser Permanente has partnered with the American Public Health Association to launch a program in 2021 that provides a 1-year, full-time, competitively paid fellowship for Masters of Public Health graduates, prioritizing first-time students from underserved communities and people of color.
The fellowship program connects individuals to community health efforts addressing a range of social factors that affect health in low-income communities. Fellows receive mentorship, access to expanded professional networks for emerging public health leaders of color, and leadership development opportunities through Kaiser Permanente and APHA.
“Kaiser Permanente is investing in America’s public health infrastructure and leadership. Our next generation of public health leaders must reflect and serve our most vulnerable communities to achieve health equity,” said Stephanie Ledesma, interim senior vice president of community health programs for Kaiser Permanente. “We are thrilled to welcome our first fellows as they continue their leadership journey and work to advance the health of our communities.”
“The program is really exciting and adds value to the field of public health. It provides a meaningful opportunity for people from communities that have been historically neglected to get experience addressing the many upstream factors that can improve or thwart good health,” said Susan Polan, PhD, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association. “It creates a pipeline for leadership in public health. APHA is really excited to be a part of this.”
Beginning in 2022, the program will expand from offering 1-year scholarships to offering 2-year scholarships to outstanding incoming MPH students from diverse, low-income backgrounds, and will increase the fellowship cohort to 10 students per year.
The aim of the new fellowship program is to help create strong, diverse public health leaders prepared to take on the many factors that affect health. Each fellowship provides work experience for each recipient in an area of interest and where progress is needed.
To identify fellowship recipients, Kaiser Permanente and APHA partnered with public universities, including Georgia State University in Atlanta, Charles R. Drew University of Science and Medicine in Los Angeles, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of California, Berkeley. The program will expand to include the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Portland State University in Oregon.
“We need different people at the table with diverse ideas and backgrounds,” said Rodney Lyn, PhD, dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. “The opportunities created by these kinds of fellowship programs go a long way toward eliminating disparities in graduation rates among students from underrepresented communities.”
Kyla Baron, MPH, Charles R. Drew University of Science and Medicine
Kyla Baron’s passion for public health began in New Orleans while attending Xavier University of Louisiana for a bachelor’s degree. There, she found that 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, the city still hadn’t recovered. In some communities, damaged houses hadn’t been touched — homes that are predominantly in areas where mostly people of color live. Why was there a disproportionate effect based on location? That experience, combined with inspirational coursework taken at Xavier, sparked in Baron a strong desire to learn more about what could be done to increase equity in health care.
Alexis Cabarga, MPH, Charles R. Drew University of Science and Medicine
With 4 adopted children, Alexis Cabarga is familiar with the adoption and foster care systems. However, she hadn’t considered public health as a career until having a frustratingly complicated experience signing up for federally funded food and child-care assistance. She earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies and planning at the University of California San Diego with the thought that bringing communities together more equally could help address health disparities. She pursued a master’s in public health with the hope of changing the systems that create disparities.
Sumaiya Khan, MPH, University of California, Berkeley
Sumaiya Khan became interested in public health while working at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center in San Francisco. She learned firsthand how social and environmental factors impact health: Whether a person has a safe place to live, healthy food to eat, and positive relationships matters. Khan wants to address those upstream factors and explore ways to better support community needs.
Kekoa Lopez-Paguyo, MPH, University of California, Berkeley
During undergraduate studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, Kekoa Lopez-Paguyo, who uses “their” pronouns, was struck by the fact that that ZIP code is more important than biology in terms of health outcomes. They wanted to understand how location contributes so strongly to health outcomes, so they enrolled in a master’s degree program for public health. Recently, Lopez-Paguyo, a Native Hawaiian, helped expand access to COVID-19 testing and the COVID-19 vaccine among the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community in the San Francisco Bay Area, collaborating with public health departments, health centers, and community-based organizations to leverage resources and bridge equity gaps.
Camille Millar, MPH, Georgia State University
While studying for a bachelor’s degree in public health, Camille Millar worked as a case manager with St. Joseph’s Mercy Care in Atlanta, where she helped unhoused individuals with mental health diagnoses stabilize their lives. After completing her undergraduate studies, she took a job as a social worker at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, helping survivors of domestic violence. That position helped her realize that she wanted her career to focus on violence prevention and the systems that support or fail to support victims of domestic violence, so she earned a master’s degree in public health.
Justice Onwordi, MPH, University of Colorado
Justice Onwordi earned a bachelor’s degree in human physiology at the University of Oregon, with the intention of becoming a doctor. At the university, she was part of an effort to add cultural competency sections to the program’s curriculum — she wanted to ensure that future doctors were considering how race, culture, sexuality, and ethnicity could impact someone’s health, along with whether they had safe, stable housing and enough food to eat. From there, her focus shifted from the medical field to public health.