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MPH Grad Takes on Timely Issues With Inaugural Public Health Fellowship

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Written by Tyler Smith on December 28, 2021

As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, Justice Onwordi learned the intricacies of human physiology. After earning her degree in 2018, she applied her skills as an exercise physiologist in the Denver metro area. She contemplated moving on to medical school or to a nurse practitioner program, but ultimately Onwordi determined that her professional path must go through public health.

“I decided that to have a well-rounded practice, the best way would be with a master’s in public health,” Onwordi said. “I don’t feel like enough healthcare professionals are knowledgeable about individual and community needs or about people’s backgrounds, socioeconomic status, or the impact that social determinants of health have on overall well-being.”

Onwordi followed her instincts and this spring earned her MPH from the Colorado School of Public Health on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, with an emphasis in women’s and global health.

“I feel there is a huge deficit in working with women of color in child and maternal health,” Onwordi said.

Now, that Onwordi has graduated, she is among the first group of young professionals selected for the national Public Health Fellows Program, jointly sponsored by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and Kaiser Permanente.

In announcing the initiative, APHA and Kaiser declared that their aim is “to build a group of diverse, underrepresented public health leaders who are committed to improving the health of our most vulnerable communities and support achieving health equity for all.”

Positive motivation from a valued mentor

Onwordi applied for the fellowship at the suggestion of Dr. Cerise Hunt, Colorado School of Public Health’s Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and director of the school’s Center for Public Health Practice. Onwordi met Hunt during her second year of study, in a health equity class. They built a relationship that continued afterward, and Hunt offered mentoring, guidance and input throughout Onwordi’s practicum and capstone projects.

“Dr. Hunt was very caring and supportive and wanted me to thrive,” Onwordi said. 

“I have observed Justice evolve into an ambitious, action-oriented leader who is confident and not afraid to activate her voice,” said Dr. Hunt. “She is well-informed, culturally responsive, and a true champion for advancing equity and social justice.”

A chance to blaze a career path

In the fellowship, Onwordi saw an opportunity to work on issues of particular importance to her, including improving economic opportunity, crafting public health policy, and addressing racism and race-related trauma.

“Those three in particular spoke volumes to me,” Onwordi said. “This is what I want to do. This is the work that is imperative right now. Kaiser is creating room for young people to have a voice and a place at the table of public health.”

After completing a long application process that included submitting two letters of recommendation – Hunt wrote one – five essay questions, a bio, a four-page curriculum vitae, a one-minute video, and completing two interviews, Onwordi learned that she’d been selected for the one-year fellowship in July. She quickly got started on the work, which she describes as applying the skills she developed in her MPH program in a career setting.

“As faculty, we are responsible for ensuring our students are trained to promote equity and justice,” Dr. Hunt said when asked about the skills learned during the MPH program. “They need to have the ability to address real-life challenges, such as dismantling structural racism, which is historically linked to health inequities that affect Blacks, Indigenous, and People of Color. Naturally, our efforts to advance equity begin in the classroom and must be embedded throughout the curriculum.”

Real-world work

For the fellowship, Kaiser set Onwordi up with a preceptor with whom she checks in every other week, while two mentors assign her tasks. But the expectation is that she and the other fellows are self-directed professionals. “It’s like a regular day-to-day job,” Onwordi said.

Her first assignment was in the public health policy section, joining a longstanding effort to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in the City of Denver. The ordinance, sponsored by Denver City Council members Amanda Sawyer and Debbie Ortega, passed on December 6 to take effect in July 2023., however Denver Mayor Michael Hancock issued a veto of the bill four days later

Onwordi worked on sharpening the language of the ordinance and helping to explain how the sale of flavored tobacco products impacts communities of color, increases the risk of addiction for young people, and ultimately drives up the overall cost of health care. She’s gotten a close look at the work required to build that argument in the face of “push-back” from business owners with an economic stake in selling the products.

Onwordi is also contributing to a project to build economic opportunity in the Montbello neighborhood in northeast Denver. The initiative, which Kaiser is helping to fund, aims to develop a condominium complex composed primarily (80%) of affordable housing units. The work also involves helping the Montbello community connect with the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), a non-profit organization that helps underserved areas tap funding for a variety of projects, including building affordable housing.

The goal is to break ground on the complex in 2022, said Onwordi, who is identifying lenders to join the project. A longer-term vision is for the complex to house local businesses and a cultural center, she added. That requires pinning down funding and finding retailers who agree to make an investment in the neighborhood.

“We’re targeting first-generation businesses run by people of color and women,” she said. “We want to build capital in the area.”  

Looking to a bright future

Details are to come, but on the horizon Onwordi anticipates more opportunities to address issues of affordable housing and homelessness. Along the way, she relishes building her skills, forming new relationships with like-minded professionals and organizations, and learning to weigh a variety of perspectives on complex problems.

“This experience is helping me gain confidence to become an advocate for communities and a voice for them,” she said. “It’s important on projects for people with different ideas and points of view to be able to listen to each other.”

That also means tuning in to the sounds in the streets of underserved communities, she emphasized.

“It’s just as important that we listen to people in the communities we are trying to support and to their stories about what they are going through,” Onwordi said. “We have to understand what they actually need rather than assuming what they need.”

”It’s so important that our graduates have the skills to engage authentically and partner with the community,” added Dr. Hunt. “Our curriculum must entail applied public health practice experiences. This requires integrating co-curricular activities that allow students to partner with the community in a culturally responsive manner to promote equity and inclusion and to apply theory to practice and action.”

As for her post-fellowship future, Onwordi said she’s increasingly interested in public policy, particularly to address issues involving racism and race-related trauma. She is grateful for the chance to contribute to building a new future for public health.

 “Kaiser is looking for different ideas and fresh and diverse new minds in public health,” she said. “Having younger eyes on projects is important.”