Collaboration and Partnership: Healing NC from the Ground Up

Collaboration and Partnership: Healing NC from the Ground Up

NC BREATHE 2023 spotlights leaders who support grassroots initiatives that will improve the quality of our air
“Air pollution moves, water pollution moves, and the health effects have impacts on everyone.”

– Virginia Guidry, NC Department of Health and Human Services

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health equity is the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health. To reach that goal, a society needs to address historical and contemporary injustices, overcome economic and social obstacles, and eliminate preventable disparities.

At the eighth annual NC BREATHE conference, we’ll bring together keynote speakers and a panel of experts who strive to achieve health equity every day. Learn who they are and how they’re working to change systems and policies that have led to injustices and racial and ethnic disparities.

Putting Children First

Dr. Aaron Levy, DO, a pediatrician at Atrium Health, kicks off NC BREATHE with a keynote address focused on the youngest North Carolinians.

“Children are vulnerable to the effects of poor air quality just by being children,” said Levy, who will provide a firsthand account of what it’s like to care for children who struggle with asthma and other illnesses made worse by poor air quality and pollution. He’ll also offer a call-to-action to encourage more health professionals to become advocates and help find solutions.

Dr. Aaron Levy
Atrium Health

Changemakers in Action

Crystal Dixon, assistant professor in the department of Health and Exercise Science at Wake Forest University (and CleanAIRE NC board member), will moderate the Health Equity panel. Dixon works with the production team at the Anna Julia Cooper Center and collaborates with The Nation, Community Change, and other national organizations to address environmental racism. She also partners with Omega and Brenda Wilson of the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) to manage medical waste in North Carolina.

Catch Wilson at the “Voices from the Frontline” panel.

crystal dixon

Crystal Dixon
Wake Forest University

Here’s the scoop on the amazing panelists at the Health Equity panel:

Calling in Higher Education 

Chris Heaney, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Community Science & Innovation for Environmental Justice (CSI EJ) Initiative. The CSI EJ currently monitors air in the vicinity of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), farms that mass-produce meat in small facilities. These industrial facilities are often found near populations of color. They pose health risks, as emissions foul the air and fecal matter seeps into the ground. 

“Dr. Heaney’s work is community-driven and centered around community members,” said Kirsten Minor, health manager at CleanAIRE NC.

Dr. Chris Heaney
Johns Hopkins University

That’s notable, she said, because often higher education institutions “perform ‘community-based participatory research,’ but what that looks like is extracting resources and walking away.”  Heaney’s work gives community members a real opportunity to share their experiences and be part of the change.

Change in Your Backyard

As Director of Community Health, Outreach and Policy at the Alamance County Health Department, Arlinda Ellison, DHSc, invites residents to participate in their own governance — and encourages Alamance County to use community-level data to support local grassroots organizations.

Historically, environmental justice has not been a factor in assessing public health, but Ellison is changing that. Using information gathered by WERA to tell the story of inequality, she’s created a powerful tool to forge change. WERA’s records forced Alamance County to reckon with an issue they’d been avoiding: addressing health disparities for people of color.

Dr. Arlinda Ellison
Alamance County Health Department

Now, thanks to Ellison’s work, Alamance is the first county in the state of North Carolina to incorporate racial disparities into its community health assessments.

Change at the State Level

Virginia Guidry, PhD, heads the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology branch of the NC Department of Health and Human Services. It’s an office you may not know about, but it meets North Carolinians where they’re at: in their homes and places of work. In order to make change, Guidry and her department study the day-to-day exposures we face. Whether Guidry and her team are monitoring COVID-19 infection rates or helping residents to maintain their drinking water wells, she’s helping prove that government has a tangible impact on North Carolinians’ immediate environment.

Dr. Virginia Guidry

Progress, fueled by the work of Ellison, Guidry, and Wilson, could make a dramatic impact on our state. In 2022 Gov. Roy Cooper committed North Carolina to a number of clean energy and environmental justice measures. Executive Order no. 246 directed all state-level cabinet agencies to appoint their own environmental justice and equity lead, and that NCDHHS should research and disseminate information about climate change and its impact on community health, specifically within communities of color. NCDHHS designated Guidry as its EJ Lead, and she has since brought on WERA and Ellison as lead consultants. She continues to seek input from the ground up so that decisions from the top make the most meaningful impact on individual communities within the state of North Carolina.

Change in Your Community

Plan to attend the health equity panel for inspiration and ideas that could help you take action in your own community.

Join forces with fellow health equity advocates at NC BREATHE 2023.

Learn more and register today. 

North Carolina’s premier climate health conference, NC BREATHE, takes place on April 6 at the 658 Center in Charlotte. The hybrid event, sponsored by Atrium Health and the US EPA Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program, brings together a diverse group of North Carolina influencers, policymakers, and community members who care about the earth, the air, and the health of North Carolina and its people. This year’s theme is “Climate Justice: Our Path to Healthier Communities.”