As an expert on the intersection of public health and the law, Montrece McNeill Ransom, JD, MPH, ACC, has seen and studied the effects of racism on public health, and there’s no doubt in her mind: It’s a national crisis.
“The racism and discrimination that people of color experience in our daily lives create stress that affects our internal organs and overall physical health,” McNeill Ransom told a University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) virtual audience Nov. 16. “This results in a higher prevalence of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes, as well as shorter lifespans.
“Simply being a Black American in this country is a significant social determinant of our health. It has been said that being Black is bad for your health, but it’s not because of our race. Pervasive racism is the cause.”
In her UMB Diversity Advisory Council Speaker Series presentation, “Dying to Belong: Racism, Public Health, and the Law,” McNeill Ransom continued by citing statistics to prove her point, pointing out racial disparities in the United States related to pregnancy, police-involved shootings, life expectancy, infant mortality, and health insurance.
“These disparities are not the result of poor hygiene or lack of adherence to medical or health care guidance,” she said. “They are the result of deep-seated, systemic racism that exists across all segments of our society, from our courthouses to our hospitals, to our schools, to our workplaces.
“There’s a growing recognition that racism is a public health crisis, and this has led hundreds of jurisdictions, cities, counties, and states to make a declaration that racism is a public health crisis. These declarations are meant to catalyze change across all sectors of government and really to bring an impact across all of what we call the social determinants of health.”
McNeill Ransom wears many hats as a lawyer, author, educator, and leadership coach. She serves as director of the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training within the National Network of Public Health Institutes; is president-elect of the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics; and is a faculty member with California State University East Bay’s Department of Public Health and Walden University’s School of Health Sciences.
In another role, she works as a belonging strategist, which UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, referenced during his introduction, reiterating that he wants the University to be a place where “everyone feels that they belong, feels that they are important, and that their voice and their career matter.”
“I’m pleased to welcome Miss McNeill Ransom to help deepen our knowledge in the area of belonging and the interrelationships between racism, public health, and the law,” Jarrell said. “If we can develop a stronger sense of belonging in our community, UMB will become a more whole place, a better place to live and work.”
McNeill Ransom discussed how the issue of racial disparities in health outcomes has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; the importance of increasing the number of minorities in the health and human services professions; and her experiences working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the early 2000s after graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law.
She said she started working as an analyst in the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, and that’s where she began to feel the “irresistible pull of public health,” particularly while fielding calls from states dealing with anthrax attacks post-Sept. 11. She said her two-year fellowship turned into a 20-year career with the CDC’s Public Health Law Program, where the last 10 years of her tenure were spent as the team lead for public health law training and workforce development.
“Through those early experiences, I learned a lesson that would shape the rest of my career: There is no public health in this country without the law,” McNeill Ransom said. “It is scientific insight, coupled with legal might, that creates the framework for healthy choices to be the norm.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m just reaching my full potential,” she added. “I’m often the only person of color in the room — sometimes the only woman and often the only lawyer in a room full of scientists — but I know that I belong. That’s because I fought for a sense of belonging.”
McNeill Ransom fielded a number of questions from the audience, including one that tied in to what she hinted would be covered in her closing remarks: What steps can UMB take to build a culture of belonging? She referred to a five-step model that included making space for authenticity; focusing on being professionally competent, people-centered, and personally compassionate; developing an acceptance mindset; assuring diversity across race, gender, age, and experience; and knowing your own biases.
“This model is meant to spark your thinking about actions that you can take, individually and collectively, to foster a sense of belonging in all of your shared spaces,” McNeill Ransom said. “It’s a framework for action, and at the heart of the model is valuing, affirming, and listening to each other as well as finding value in our authentic identity and our uniqueness.”
Expanding on the fourth step, she reiterated that representation matters.
“You have to purposely include more diversity at the table and in positions of power and in decision-making positions,” McNeill Ransom said. “If you don’t do this already, I want you to start looking around the room and asking yourself, ‘Who is missing?’ This is one of the best ways to foster a sense of belonging and retain a diverse talent pool, because diversity, equity, and inclusion is about getting them, while belonging is about keeping them.”