Mission Possible: Healthy Lives for Everyone

Posted on by Leandris C. Liburd, PhD, MPH, MA

Last fall, one of my friends launched a monthly blog that chronicles her life and that of seven of her friends. They journeyed through the Civil Rights Movement and the transition of a once highly segregated and deeply divided city in the south to experience much of the promise of America. The blogs foretell what will be published in a book which will similarly reveal the personal histories, challenges, and triumphs of these African American women who would create a legacy of achievements possible only after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and continue today.

I asked my friend what inspired her to write about friends, friendship, and the significance of these relationships over decades of social change. We talked at length about living through the experience of the legal desegregation of public schools, movie theaters, restaurants, private colleges, and neighborhoods. Looking back, these changes ushered in opened doors as well as new civil rights challenges that continue to occupy the professional and civic commitments of this circle of friends. Through the book, they are hopeful that their stories will resonate with others, and coming generations will learn important lessons from them. They believe new paths to The Beloved Community will be created as a result of documenting their histories. 1

As we launch a yearlong commemoration of the 30th anniversary of CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (OMHHE), I am mindful of why it is important to take the time to examine, document, and celebrate an organization’s history. According to Seaman Jr. and Smith, in their Harvard Business Review article Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool, “A sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the future.” 2

Beyond the celebration of having persevered for 30 years, reflecting on the history of the Office is anMission: Possible design element opportunity to study change that has occurred over time both within OMHHE and across CDC in reducing health disparities and pursuing health equity. We are able to put the Office’s evolution in perspective and examine what makes our contributions distinctive within CDC’s comprehensive public health program. Seaman Jr. and Smith argue that the effective use of an organization’s history can be “a potent problem-solving tool, one that offers pragmatic insights, valid generalizations, and meaningful perspectives.” They observe, “Conventional problem-solving begins with two questions: What is the problem? and How can it be fixed? It is more unusual to ask, How did we get to this point?” 2

CDC was the first operating division within the Department of Health and Human Services to establish an office of minority health in response to the 1985 Secretary’s Task Force Report on Black and Minority Health. Then CDC director, Dr. James Mason, added the Office of the Associate Director for Minority Health to his senior leadership team. He began the process of elevating awareness across CDC programs of the disproportionate burden of premature death, preventable disease, and injury experienced by communities of color in the U.S. This also started building the agency’s capacity to effectively address and reduce health disparities and increase the diversity of the CDC workforce to broaden perspectives on what is needed in surveillance, programs, policies, and other strategies to improve minority health. Over the years, the name of the office has changed some, but the mission to reduce health disparities has not changed. Much has been implemented, but there is still more to do before we achieve health equity, that is, when all people have the opportunity to attain the best health possible.

Over the past 30 years, both the discourse of minority health and Mission: Possible poster with three previous directors of OMHHEthe complexities associated with reducing and eliminating health disparities have evolved. The discourse has shifted to include eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities, overcoming health inequities, addressing social determinants of health, and achieving health equity. For example, we understand that not all health differences are health disparities. According to Healthy People 2020, health disparities are “a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage.3  Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.” 3 This awareness has given rise to global and national attention to the impact of the social determinants of health, and the need for multi-sectoral partnerships to address factors that impact population health, but are outside of the traditional purview of public health. 4

Throughout 2018, we will highlight success stories from the national centers, institutes, and offices at CDC that capture how they have improved minority health and reduced health disparities. We will challenge our colleagues to become public health agents of change in their communities as well as at CDC. Our theme for the 30th anniversary commemoration is Mission: Possible. We believe “healthy lives for everyone” is possible and a goal that resonates in public health.

What success stories do you know of in improving minority health and reducing health disparities? How can you become a public health agent of change and help us achieve healthy lives for everyone?


  1. Marsh, C. (2005). The beloved community: How faith shapes social justice, from the civil rights movement to today. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Seaman , J. T., Jr., & Smith, G. D. (2014, July 31). Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from https://hbr.org/2012/12/your-companys-history-as-a-leadership-tool
  3. Disparities. (n.d.). HealthyPeople.gov. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from http://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/about/foundation-health-measures/Disparities
  4. Commission on Social Determinants of Health – final report. (2008). World Health Organization. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from http://www.who.int/social_determinants/thecommission/finalreport/en/
Posted on by Leandris C. Liburd, PhD, MPH, MA

8 comments on “Mission Possible: Healthy Lives for Everyone”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    I really like this messaging / marketing, especially Dr. Liburd out front in photo with other past Directors knocking it out of the park. Reducing health disparities in poor underserved, minority communities will enable us to always have a pool of diverse, multi-talented people to recruit from.

    Each Summer we employ minority youth and educate them on the field of Public Health.. here is how we formulate their mindset as agents of change to promote health in their own community.
    Health Education is fluid and youth are unaware of the challenging health disparities facing their communities, and the various careers in the field of public health. By employing youth to work in The Prince George’s County Health Department, Youth@Work, Summer Youth Enrichment Program (SYEP). We engaged 24 community youth, ages 15 through 19, as interns. Interns received training in how to conduct public health research in order to understand the challenging public health issues facing their communities. This six week career development program engaged interns, offering on-the-job-training through hands-on and observation in various fields of public health. Interns were mentored and educated by staff which allowed interns to work alongside a health professional within various fields of public health. Interns were assigned entry level positions as: clerical aids, receptionist, computer data entry, banking, medical records, office clerks, finance clerks and medical aids.
    Wednesday’s Enrichment Sessions: interns learned how public health applied in their community which promoted their knowledge base on prevalent health issues facing the community. The health department’s Deputy Health Officers and other health department staff provided workshops to promote interns understanding of public health and health disparities. Addictions Counselor, HIV/STD Educator, Epidemiologist, Registered Nurse, Clinical Psychologist and Youth Peer Support Specialist were amongst those used to educate interns about the health department and various careers in public health.
    Development of teams: interns were challenged to use public health research methodology to design community health educational outreach tools and programs to address the identified health disparities in their community for example, food deserts. Interns utilized social media to develop App’s, Websites or Advocacy Groups that would focus on the health disparity. The interns gained knowledge of available and accessible health resources in their community, the ability to develop culturally appropriate health messages to reach their target audience, which empowered interns to be able to promote healthy messages in their community.
    Two college health educators, were employed to work with the interns over the summer and used various professional development techniques to instill confidence within the interns which allowed them to use their own skills in a manner that made the content conducive to their learning behaviors. Interns were provided with a wealth of knowledge that allowed them to see the vast realm of Public Health and how their career interests can be interrelated to the field. By introducing the issue of food deserts, interns were able to analyze and comprehend how many factors influence this social disruption. Once the message was received, the interns felt empowered to take matters into their own hands and researching various data resources, and gained additional skills and knowledge thus allowing them the ability to composed solutions. Interns were challenged to seek assistance from public health professionals to gain more knowledge and understanding on their projects. Interns became enlightened on how policy, budget, zoning laws, socioeconomic status and cost contribute to the prevalence of food deserts within their respective communities. The project allowed them to see how various careers can fall under the umbrella of public health, for example: technology, transportation, accounting, computer design, and engineering, thus, opening their eyes to different career options. As a result of this unique experiential learning curriculum and successful career development opportunities, the interns felt empowered and confident to define a problem, seek out the solution and lastly, the ability to emerge as leaders and be a change agent in their community.

    Hello Dr. Liburd,

    I was happy to receive your blog post form one of my colleagues. It hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since the establishment of the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. I am glad you are at the helm. Please keep the dream alive especially considering the current climate of divisiveness and general confusion. I’m pulling for you.

    Louise S.

    Health inequities come in many forms and affect people of all races, ages, ethnicities, diagnoses and socio-economic statuses. One I deal with most frequently is in the area of mental health and substance abuse. Coverage for behavioral health services has often been supplied by ‘carve-out’ companies, separate from a primary insurance company, and this coverage has often been lacking. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity Act was passed in an attempt to even the playing field, so-to-speak, between medical and mental health coverage. But the notion of ‘parity’ has been left fairly undefined which has allowed companies the loopholes to be able to deny coverage as being ‘not medically necessary.’ Marketplace plans have been found to have denials nearly twice the rate of other medical care and most do not cover the cost of medications. The most acute patients with no coverage are provided services at the state Community Service Board facilities. With public coverage, care can be received at Federally Qualified Health Facilities. But what if you are struggling with a mental health issue, are working (and continuing to work to try to stay afloat) and have no coverage for care? Many of these people cannot afford to pay privately for care but are ineligible for care at these other agencies because they are not severe enough to require hospitalization and are employed, despite possibly making an amount just over the federal poverty line. These are what I consider the forgotten victims.
    In my city, I am proud to be part of a very strong chapter of Mental Health America. One of the services we provide is a Mental Health Collaborative. Volunteers from various agencies step outside their organizations for a shared goal of mental health for our citizens and provide assessment, counseling and pharmacotherapy for just this population. Screening is done to make sure they are ineligible for services at any other agency (and if they are, they are referred accordingly). But if they are eligible, they receive not only services but the medication they need. It has been a very successful endeavor and has provided a safety net for those uninsured and underinsured individuals who have felt left behind. MHA operates on grants, donations and terrific volunteers.

    Thanks for the marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back later on. I want to encourage one to continue your great job, have a nice holiday weekend!

    Thank you for this post and for the work you do! I am interested in reading the blog (and book) you mentioned in your introduction. Could you provide the name of the blog and/or link?

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Page last reviewed: February 27, 2018
Page last updated: February 27, 2018