April 7, 2016

Law professor at the University of California Berkeley john a. powell addresses the board on Thursday.

Gun shots. Car exhaust. High-speed traffic. The places we live affect our health. Tack onto that an expectation - and so often a reality-  of being mistreated; of feeling you don’t belong.

“It’s stressful being Black in America,” john a. powell, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley told the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Thursday during a briefing in honor of National Public Health Week. “Some people feel uncomfortable talking about race. But even when you account for socioeconomic status, race is an indicator of health.”

The son of Southern sharecroppers who moved north, powell was born in Detroit. He has worked as a public defender in Seattle, as the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, as an international consultant to the governments of South Africa and Mozambique and taught law at Harvard and Columbia universities. Today he directs the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California.

He looks at how place - and race - impacts the physical health of a community.

“The way we think about health has changed in the past 20 years. It’s not just biological or behavioral. We’re looking at environment, geography. Where do people live?” He asked.

People who live in neighborhoods with more crime, violence and traffic, with poor and fewer parks, measure higher levels of stress in their bodies. And living that way, day after day, results in poor health.

But poverty is not created equal. Poor black people live in worse conditions than poor white people, for example.

“Something is going on, beyond poverty,” powell said. “We’re not just talking about race. We’re talking about ethnicity, disability, if English is not your first language. What are the ways we send a message that this place is not yours. We can measure the biological response to feeling like you don’t belong.”

john a. powell addresses the board as Health Department Director Joanne Fuller (right) and Public Health Director Tricia Tillman (center) look on.

Instead, officials can adopt a policy of, “You belong. This is your place.” It means reducing segregation in neighborhoods and schools.  Raleigh, North Carolina did this by making sure no single school had more than 40 percent of its students who lived in poverty, or who were failing in their classes. As result, test scores rose across the board.

Powell encouraged commissioners, when considering new programs, to answer the question, how will this impact the health of the community?

Joanne Fuller, Health Department director, said she had hoped that by inviting powell as a featured speaker for Public Health Week, the commissioners would hear thought-provoking information on how policies and government structures can create -- or knock down -- barriers to inclusion and public health.