James A. Mercy, PhD
Name: James A. Mercy, PhD
Title: Director, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Control and Prevention (NCIPC)
Years at CDC: 36
Public Health Agent of Change Service Record:
How have you worked to advance health equity?
I have learned that advancing health equity starts with us here at CDC. During a recent health equity training for Division of Violence Prevention (DVP) staff, everyone discussed his/her last name, its origin, and how they felt about it. Several of my African American colleagues shared how their families carried the last name of their ancestors’ slave owners. This shocking moment opened my eyes to how the legacy of inequity can persist through generations and yet remain largely invisible to most of us. This exercise inspired me to redouble our efforts to reduce inequities by reinforcing the value of training that can help sensitize us to the continuing reality of racism and its impact on health.
What are you currently doing or have done in your career to reduce health disparities?
Violence disproportionately impacts people of color, the poor, and other groups that have been marginalized. Consequently, much of the work we do in the DVP has the potential to address health inequities. One area of focus is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs are trauma or extreme stress experienced during childhood and are more likely to be experienced by minorities. Violence is a major component of ACEs and includes child abuse and neglect, bullying, teen dating violence, sexual violence, and peer-to-peer assaults. Early childhood exposure to ACEs can alter the brain in ways that increase the risk of mental health problems, infectious diseases such as HIV, chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer across the life course. The good news is that we have learned a lot about how to prevent ACEs over the past several decades. We believe that violence prevention in minority communities may be one key to reducing health disparities that continue to persist across racial and ethnic groups in this country.
How can we work to make achieving health equity a Mission: Possible?
One of my favorite quotes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Achieving health equity will come when we realize we all stand to benefit from efforts to bring it about. At CDC, we can use our formidable scientific and communication capacity to show how achieving health equity is in everybody’s best interest.