Skip to content

Build bridges between government, community to strengthen public health workforce


Early in my career, despite having both a law and Master in Public Health degree, pursuing a career in governmental public health was not something anyone encouraged me to do. But through my work with the state primary care association in Massachusetts, I met and began working with city and state health department staff. It was through those collaborations that I was able to join the Boston Public Health Commission.

There, I was fortunate enough to work with amazing public health leaders like Dr. John Rich, Barbara Ferrer and John Auerbach who believed in me and served as mentors. All three in their own unique ways gave me the chance to grow and learn about the importance of racial justice and engaging community partners as we grew programs and advocated for additional resources to meet the needs of the diverse communities we served. This early experience was foundational in shaping the course of what would be leadership roles for me at the city, state and national levels. I’ve been fortunate to have had several other close mentors along the way that have guided and supported me along the way.

Not everyone is so lucky. Amidst a global pandemic, the governmental public health workforce is in crisis. Despite large tranches of federal, private and philanthropic resources to help rebuild a workforce that was decimated during the Great Recession, health departments are struggling to fill critical positions.

Recruiting and retaining talent in public health departments was already challenging before COVID-19. Today, it’s even harder – hiring and keeping staff who have confronted verbal, physical, and in some instances, racist and misogynist threats from the public and even fellow public officials doesn’t make for the most welcoming work environment. Responding to COVID-19 in these difficult conditions has contributed to increased stress, burnout and what many of us know to be post-traumatic stress symptoms. According to the most recent Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS), more than half of public health employees reported PTSD symptoms; one in five said their mental health was either fair or poor; and one in four said they were considering leaving their organizations.

Despite these challenges, public health employees also reported being committed to their jobs and communities. This is why I’ve remained optimistic about the future of public health and its workforce.

I had the opportunity to serve as the keynote speaker at the South Carolina Public Health Association meeting in late March, which was the first time public health staff and community-based colleagues were able to come together in-person since before the pandemic.

The theme was “Developing Our Roots: Fostering An Effective Public Health Ecosystem,” and local and national presenters grounded their remarks in opportunities for the future. I had the privilege of co-presenting with Germaine Jenkins, Kresge’s Equitable Food Oriented Development (EFOD) partner from Fresh Future Farms.

Throughout the convening, Germaine’s closing reflections kept coming up in conversations: “Here I was working on our farm, growing healthy food and helping my community during the pandemic with getting access to healthy food, connecting people with other resources in our neighborhood, and helping to take care of families, and I realized I’m doing public health work.”

This is what public health in action looks like. It’s community leaders like Germaine who become integral partners for health departments in helping them meaningfully engage and investment in communities to ensure that everyone can be as healthy as they can be.

There are critical activities underway to reimagine what the future of public health and the workforce looks like in the 21st century. At Kresge, we’re proud of our Emerging Leaders in Public Health Initiative and the ways in which our leaders have weathered the COVID storm by serving as chief health strategists who have grounded their efforts in achieving health equity in their respective communities.

We’re also members of the National Consortium for Public Health Workforce Development, where we’ve defined both short- and long-term goals to strengthen efforts for rebuilding a diverse and well-compensated pipeline of public health workers for the future.

Through Public Health Forward, we’ve partnered with diverse stakeholders in developing recommendations related to workforce development to underscore the need for a highly skilled, trained and diverse public health workforce that provides evidence-informed programs and services to address community health needs, encourage healthy behaviors and respond to emerging threats.

After spending a few days with our public health colleagues in South Carolina, I feel re-energized and confident that there will be new models for strengthening the public health workforce by building stronger bridges between the government and community-based workforce.

To read additional commentaries from the Health Team’s National Public Health Week series, check out: