Reflections on Minority Health at CDC 1988-1997
To commemorate the occasion of our 25th anniversary, we will feature some reflections of our former and current colleagues, beginning with Dr. Rueben Warren, CDC’s first Associate Director for Minority, who shares some thoughts on the establishment and accomplishments of the Office during his tenure.
Rueben C. Warren DDS, MPH, DrPH, MDIV
Dr. Reuben Warren
Former Director, CDC's Office of Minority Health (OMH)
Dr. Warren came to CDC in the summer of 1988. His appointment was historic in that it came on the heels of the release of the landmark 1985 Secretary’s Task Force Report on Black & Minority Health. Dr. Warren recalls, “In the Introduction to the 1985 Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, then Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Margret Heckler wrote, ‘disparities have existed ever since federal record keeping began more than a generation ago…’” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) responded by establishing the first Office of the Associate Director for Minority Health within a federal agency in August 1988.
“Having the opportunity to be in the public health agency that focuses on health promotion and disease prevention, and being able to respond to the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black & Minority Health” was what attracted Dr. Warren to this position. “We were the first HHS Operating Division to be able to respond to this Report,” Dr. Warren remembers proudly. Within CDC, there was a group of minority scientists and public health advisors who met with then CDC Director Dr. James Mason to explore what was needed to establish a focus on minority health in the agency. Dr. Sonja Hutchins, Senior Medical Advisor in the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, was part of this group as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer and shared, “We envisioned that there would be an Office of Minority Health that would serve as a resource to the national Centers, Institutes, and Offices (CIOs) to promote the science, training, and partnerships needed to improve minority health.”
In addition to the opportunities to improve minority health, Dr. Warren also shared challenges he encountered. “The greatest challenge I encountered was trying to address institutional racism, interpersonal racism, and internalized racism as our new Office was emerging as part of the CDC/ATSDR culture which [also] expected that we address not only racism, but also sexism, homophobia, and classism. The third challenge was recognizing the expanded impact of risk factors that influenced minority health which required an appreciation of the behavioral and social sciences.”
“Beyond the descriptive and inferential statistics from which public health does its work, there are individual people behind the statistics. There are also people who are responsible for policy, programs and allocating resources,” said Dr. Warren.
“In looking back over the early years of the Office of Minority Health,” Dr. Warren recalled, “My reflections focus on the people who made the greatest impact during my tenure as Associate Director for Minority at CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), such as
Dr. Louis S. Sullivan
, who as Secretary of DHHS, made clear by the power of his presence that the health of people of color was a Department priority.
Dr. James O. Mason
, who as Director of CDC, assured minority health was a high priority throughout the agency, and his commitment to minority health continued after he was promoted to Assistant Secretary of Health and Surgeon General.
Dr. Vernon Houk
, who as Director of the Center for Environmental Health, established essential Centers that focused on issues disproportionately impacting minority health.
Dr. Barry Johnson
, who as Assistant Administrator of the ATSDR, provided leadership support for Environmental Justice in the DHHS.
Dr. Gladys Reynolds
, who as Senior Mathematical Statistician of the CDC OMH, provided unmatched statistical expertise and unwavering support for minority students.
Dr. Karen Bouye
, who as the longest standing staff in the Office modeled personal growth by earning two masters and PhD degrees while fulfilling full time responsibilities at CDC. “Joining the Office of Minority Health at its beginning gave me the opportunity to fulfill my passion for helping people who experience health disparities,” shared Dr. Bouye. “I enjoy working with all population groups. When the Office was first established, we worked closely with HHS, the CDC Director, and other high ranking officials, and it was very exciting. I was able to see the national burden of health disparities through our close working relationship with the National Center for Health Statistics, and learn what was going on around the country to address these disparities.”
Dr. Kevin B. Williams
, who as a student with three learning disabilities, joined CDC as an undergraduate summer student, and later completed a MPH and PhD. Dr. Williams is currently faculty at a university.”
Accomplishments of the Office of Minority Health during Dr. Warren’s tenure (1988-1997) included helping to develop 4 MPH Programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; establishing a student research training program that resulted in 15 master’s theses and 6 doctoral dissertations; formalizing agreements with at least one organization from each minority population and a national faith based organization; and supporting 37 State Offices of Minority Health. According to Dr. Warren, “25 years is a short time to accomplish the monumental task of eliminating health disparities and promoting the health of all people. However, we must never forget that minority health reflects the health of the nation!”
When asked how he wanted to be remembered as the first Associate Director for Minority Health at CDC, he responded, “I want to be remembered as an authentic member of the world community who embraced social justice.”
From February 4 through May 24, 2013, the David J. Sencer CDC Museum will engage designers, innovators, engineers, public health followers and urban planners alike with the traveling exhibition “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” a look at the most resourceful design emerging from the informal settlements (commonly referred to as slums or squatter settlements) of the world’s most crowded cities.
Later in the year, the David J. Sencer CDC Museum will present, in collaboration with OMMHE, an exhibit on the evolution of minority health in the United States to coincide with the celebration of OMHHE's 25th anniversary in late September 2013.
Organized thematically around issues related to the social determinants of health, the exhibit will highlight public health challenges and achievements in reducing health disparities by CDC, other public health agencies, and community-based organizations.