Spotlight Exclusives

A Discussion on Racial Equity, Healing, and Poverty Part 1

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Dr. Gail C. Christopher is vice president program strategy for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where she leads the foundation۪s America Healing Initiative, a program that supports racial healing in communities and works to dismantle structural racism. Dr. Christopher is an expert on health policy, with particular expertise and experience in the issues related to social determinants of health, health disparities, and public policy issues of concern to African American and other minority populations.

Following the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in August, Dr. Christopher answered questions posed by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. This is the first of a two-part series to launch Spotlight۪s Racial Equity and Poverty Section, funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

Q. What is the connection between race, poverty, and health outcomes for children?   

A. There is an increased understanding of how adversity affects health throughout the lifecycle. Through advances in medicine and science, we have a better understanding of how the environment cultural and literal environment interferes with or enhances the dynamics of the human body. We know that exposure to adversity, particularly in those vulnerable, fragile early years, as well as prenatally, is harmful. The continued disinvestment in communities that sustains poverty is creating poor health outcomes for people who are entrapped in those communities. Adversity can be increased by air pollution. It can be increased by more exposure to lead in the water and in the environment. It can be too much exposure to crime and violence. It can also be a lack of access to quality food or to safe housing. Adversity can be the risk involved with poorly managed traffic in an urban area. There are all sorts of adverse conditions in poor communities, and we know now that they all get inside the body to increase risk and decrease the body۪s defenses for maintaining good health.

Q. What can be done to address these adversities?

A. We can have policies that “de-concentrate poverty.”  We can have policies that move people into levels of opportunities, and move opportunities into communities where they don۪t exist. The policies have to be intentional. They have to be structured so that every child, every family and particularly each expectant mother gets access to the social conditions beyond medical care to reduce adversity, like nutrient intake through quality foods that help to mitigate the effects of adversity. We have to put creative solutions in place.

Q. Why haven۪t local communities played a larger role in reducing poverty and increasing economic opportunities?

A. Local communities don۪t usually deal explicitly with the issues of race and poverty because many are in denial about the historic and contemporary role of racism, discrimination and denied opportunities, particularly how they contribute to poverty. The average person doesn۪t know the history of residential segregation as it has played out in their local communities. They don۪t know the role of housing and housing finance policies in creating pockets of racialized poverty. In the absence of that understanding and awareness we continue to debate the issue of providing services, but not in a real and authentic context. So the debate is usually over how much taxpayer money should be spent or what the role for government should be, rather than a discussion on issues at the core of structural racismthose policies and practices that continue to create barriers for children of color.

Q. Do you feel that communities are moving in the right direction?

A. We are beginning to see innovative efforts to expand awareness of the role played by historic and contemporary racism as well as both conscious and unconscious bias. This new understanding may subsequently change the decision making process and increase the level of commitment by local communities to play larger roles in reducing poverty and increasing economic opportunities. The WKKF [W.K. Kellogg Foundation] America Healing initiative a five-year, $75 million initiative that is focused on bringing healing to divided communities and bridging racial gaps is supporting these efforts in communities around the country.      

Q. How must the country change for our communities to prosper?

A. The country must truly understand the complexity of our history and the central roles of racism and residential segregation in creating that history. Every community needs to understand how it came to be, that is who moved in and when; who had opportunities for jobs, housing and healthcare; and who was denied those same opportunities. And what are the results of those power dynamics. As a nation, we need to collectively answer the question: How do we really create equal opportunities? The heart of the matter is that most of the children born in this country today are children of color. If we do not address the fundamental barriers to opportunity based on the legacy of racism, the future of our country will be at stake. We cannot have a strong nation if our communities continue to be divided by the haves and have-nots, and the gap continues to grow. We need will and action to address the history of racism and its contemporary legacy.

To print a PDF of this interview, click here.

Dr. Gail C. Christopher is vice president program strategy for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a nonpartisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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