‘In This for the Long Haul’: Alum Centers Health Equity in Career After SPH
Alum Jori Fortson (SPH’20) shares about formative experiences she had at the school and what inspires her to advocate for health justice.
For Jori Fortson, health equity work has never been optional. She considers it a calling to advocate for marginalized communities and work towards better health outcomes for all.
Fortson graduated from SPH in 2020 with certificates in community assessment, program design, implementation, and evaluation (CAPDIE) and maternal and child health (MCH). She was involved in numerous organizations at the school and served as a fellow with the Diversity Scholars Leadership Program in the MCH Center of Excellence. Fortson was also a writing fellow at Public Health Post and an active member in Students of Color for Public Health. In 2019, she was awarded the Whitney Young, Jr. Fellowship for her demonstrated commitment to a future career in social justice, race relations, and urban problems.
After graduating, Fortson conducted research for the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), investigating technology facilitated gender-based violence that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. From there, Fortson became a program associate on the Healthy Children and Families theme at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The Healthy Children and Families theme focuses on ensuring that all families, regardless of their background, have the resources that they need to raise healthy thriving children starting from their earliest years.
Fortson sat down with us to share more about how her time at SPH prepared her for the work she is doing today, how the public health community can further health equity, and lessons she’s learned since graduating.
with Jori Fortson
Why did you choose public health? What speaks to you about the field and the work you do?
I went to college not necessarily knowing what I wanted to do, but I always knew that I wanted to work with and for people—for people’s welfare. I did not know that my path would be public health. But, in my life I witnessed so many inequities as a Black woman. My entry point into public health came through the statistic that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth.
Whether we are talking about maternal health, other health conditions or environmental factors, people of color—particularly Black people—suffer more in this nation. I wanted to do something about it, to be a part of actualizing health equity and addressing the barriers that prevent optimal health.
What does your work look like as a program associate at RWJF?
Within the foundation, RWJF’s central focus is building a “culture of health.” We use strategies and indicators of progress throughout the organization to get towards that vision of a culture of health, which includes addressing the structural factors that influence opportunity for well-being.
In the Healthy Children and Families theme, we see our predominant role as helping to catalyze change to our economic system so that it is more inclusive and responsive to families and in service of their well-being. This means thinking about how to shift mindsets and how to get children and families at the forefront of policy agendas. I work alongside program officers to work with grantees, support programmatic development, and think strategically about where we want to go as a theme.
One of the greatest opportunities of public health is that there is so much versatility in the field. Some of my colleagues at RWJF may have an MPH degree-wise, but they have experience in research, or direct service work, or they have law backgrounds, or heavy policy backgrounds. There are also people who pivoted from a practitioner role in medicine. I think this diversity mirrors the field more broadly and emphasizes how collaborative and cross-sectorial public health is. My work looks a little bit different every day.
When I was at SPH, I didn’t know that I would wind up working for a philanthropic organization. The skills and experiences I had while I was in school have led me to where I am now.
You graduated from SPH a couple of years ago. What did you enjoy most about your experience at the school while you were here?
I appreciated collaborating with my classmates, learning from new perspectives and hearing new voices. Through the Diversity Scholars Leadership Program, I had opportunities for mentorship and attended conferences. The speaker series at SPH were also great opportunities to expand my worldview.
My experience at Public Health Post helped me think about how to make research, data, and information more accessible and more meaningful to the public. I also got to participate in research through my practicum, the Dr. James A. Ferguson RISE Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University funded by the CDC. Throughout my two years at SPH, these different experiences really expanded my interests within public health.
When I started grad school, I thought I would graduate and know exactly what I wanted to do. But I remember talking to Dean Galea one day and I said, “Now I am interested in too many things.” He said, well that is sort of the point. I’m so glad SPH celebrates expanding your interests. It allowed me to find a way to enjoy the journey, and not to be so solely focused on what the destination would look like when I graduated.
While you were at SPH, are there people that had an impact on you as a public health professional, thinker, or leader?
I cannot speak highly enough about the amazing professors at SPH. I was a teaching assistant (TA) while I was a student, and I really appreciated having professors who were invested in both my personal and academic success.
Of the many influential mentors I had, one that comes to mind is Candice Belanoff. I am grateful for her guidance as an advisor and professor in CAPDIE. Candice is brilliant and helped push my thinking about what health equity work looks like. In the last few years, we’ve heard topics like “structural racism” and “health equity” mentioned more than we used to. In Candice’s classes, she taught us how to amplify voices that we traditionally may not hear in the public health sector and listen to those with lived experience.
Another is Sophie Godley, who I had for an introductory course to maternal and child health. I went into the MCH program thinking I was only interested in work around maternal mortality. After taking a class with Sophie and sitting in on office hours, my interests expanded to sexual and reproductive health more broadly. I ended up working in a teen clinic. I also did research on intimate partner violence. I credit her class with a lot of why I ended up expanding my horizons.
What advice do you have for current SPH students?
Be open to learning new skills and information, embracing new perspectives, and taking advantage of being in school. One of the most incredible things about graduate school is that you are in an environment where everyone is there to learn. Immerse yourself in all that the school has to offer, whether that looks like attending speaker series, Lunch and Learns, going to office hours with professors, joining things like the Activist Lab or getting involved in other extracurriculars. Once you finish school, those sorts of involvements are not always an option.
Also, take time to practice self-care. I remember days where I’d leave class feeling emotionally exhausted or burnt out because we’d been in a three-hour session discussing difficult topics that I couldn’t just brush off. In those moments, self-care is especially important.
What have you learned about working in public health since graduating?
Particularly because I graduated right when the pandemic began, we are in a unique time. On one hand, over the last couple of years I have seen that unfortunately evidence does not always lead to change in policy. It takes more than demonstrating with research and data why we should implement a policy. I have been reflecting on how to truly catalyze change. I don’t have the answer, but I have learned that public health evidence is only half of the battle.
On the more optimistic hand, since we are in such a unique time, things have happened in the past couple of years that we were always told were not possible. We have been able to distribute funds to families. With the Child Tax Credit and stimulus checks, the government has gotten resources to people in unprecedented ways.
The pandemic is a terrible tragedy that we all wish had never happened. There were many difficult lessons learned. And yet, the pandemic has also served as a catalyst to think about what is possible in the future.
How can public health practitioners and students support the work that is going on to improve health equity?
None of this is new work. Find out what is going on in your community and get involved with local organizations. For example, with the fall of Roe, there are long-standing reproductive justice organizations that need our help. Find ways to support them. Volunteer with grassroots organizations who have been doing the work but may not be the most resourced. Getting involved looks different for everyone.
The midterms are coming up. An election cycle is health equity work too. Whether volunteering for a campaign or local organizations, there is a lot of work to be done. It is all intersectional.
How do you stay encouraged while doing this work?
You do not get thanked for good public health work, for prevention. One thing that keeps me going is knowing that, at least for me, this work is not optional. I feel called to do it and I get to work with people that are just as passionate as I am. While we may not be seeing policy or legal wins right now, people are still in this fight. We are in this for the long-haul.
There are so many devoted people who are doing this work. For many of them as well, they do not see it as optional. That’s what keeps me going: knowing that there is a whole community that I am a part of that is just as invested as I am.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.