Our Green Line Series interview this week features Ngozi Oleru, Division Director of the Environmental Health Division for Public Health Seattle and King County. She is responsible for leading and managing the environmental health programs serving a population of over 2 million residents and has been instrumental in bringing a public health and equity focus to the impacts of the built environment both locally and nationally in policy and programmatic roles.
Ngozi will be a featured speaker at the GoGreen Conference session on March 16th entitled Building Healthcare and Business Climate Resilience.
You have been working on health equity for ten years now. Why is health equity important?
The question shouldn’t be why is health equity important, it should be why ISN’T health equity important. Equity should be the norm. Equity is where/how/when everyone gets to participate in life with full access to opportunities and consequences that are distributed not necessarily equally, but equitably. Does everybody need to be the president of a university? No. Does everyone need to be an engineer? No. But everyone should have access to the opportunities for health and well-being to do whatever it is they are called to do. That’s why it is important.
What are some public health policy changes that have been made in the last few years to advance health equity?
A fundamental change has been the adoption of a social determinants approach to health policy; the adoption an upstream, root-cause approach to public health. Are we there yet? No, but that shift has really brought into focus the idea that the definition of health is not just the absence of disease. Most people think of health from a disease/medical model. The shift of looking at health from the social determinants approach has been a real fundamental change which has brought us to the consideration of health equity in a more intentional and hopefully more sustainable way.
How are you creating and increasing health equity in King County? What are some initiatives the Environmental Health Division is working on now?
In 2006/2007, through a planning process, our department adopted the guiding principles: Based on Science and Evidence; Centered on Community; Driven by Social Justice; and Focused on Prevention to guide our practice. As a result, we are trying to be more intentional in the way we are engaging with the community in designing both the policies and programs.
For example, we just launched a new food safety rating system in King County. We made sure to engage limited-English and diverse food cultural groups so we could take into consideration how this new rating system would affect them and their businesses. As a result I think we got a better and more inclusive outcome.
We are also making very intentional efforts to hire for diversity so that the people in our community are reflected in our workforce. It is important that the perspectives that are brought to the table are as diverse as the people who are being served by our programs and impacted by our policies.
For me, the focus on diversifying the workforce, the focus on engaging the community in an intentional meaningful way are two very substantive efforts that are necessary as we work towards health equity.
What are a few things that government agencies and businesses can do to eliminate preventable and unjust differences for people of color and low-income populations?
There is a basic need for people in Government agencies and businesses to understand how structures and systems that prevent and deny access to certain groups of people have been built into our institutions. Understanding that historical context will go a long way to accelerate the dismantling of barriers to opportunity.
Policies about who we hire- how we define who qualifies and who doesn’t qualify for a job- don’t often allow everybody to participate. If a variety of perspectives are engaged when jobs are defined and described, we can take a step towards chipping away at a system that is not equitably accessible to all groups of people.
In King County we have an ordinance that directs our work through an equity and social justice lens. We provided training for our employees to understand what that means and what it looks like. It is imperative to understand the history of where inequity came from. It takes an examination of the way we’ve been doing business. It’s a mindset, a new mindset to depart from business as usual and a willingness to make meaningful change.
The Environmental Health Services department of Seattle and King County focuses on the prevention of disease through sanitation, safe food and water, proper disposal of wastes and toxins, and promoting safe and healthy environmental conditions throughout King County. You can find out more about the Environmental Health Services department on their website.
Event Details: The GoGreen Conference, brought to you by King County, will take place Thursday, March 16, 2017 at the Conference Center located at Eighth Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle, Washington. Tickets are available at seattle.gogreenconference.net or via phone at 206.459.0595.