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Here’s what’s driving this CSULB professor to achieve Black health equity in Long Beach

Published April 27, 2021

When Dr. Amber Johnson, an assistant health science professor, caught wind of the City of Long Beach’s plans to hold town halls on Black health equity, she wanted to get involved.  

“We thought it was important for us to volunteer ourselves as Black women and public health professionals to moderate these sessions, particularly when Black health equity is our expertise,” Johnson said, referring to a colleague who also works in Black health equity. 

In June 2020, the City of Long Beach adopted its Framework for Reconciliation to address and help end systematic racism, which started with listening sessions and town halls around key topics, such as economics, criminal justice, cannabis recovery and Black health equity. 

Today, she leads the city’s Black Health Equity Team, which is tasked with addressing health disparities among Black community members.

We spoke with Johnson about the work she and her team are doing. 

How did you discover this was your passion/something you wanted to devote your time to?  

Johnson: I grew up in North Carolina and one of my first experiences with racism happened in second grade. I can remember it vividly. I was on the bus, and a young white girl called me the N-word and I got mad, and we got into a scuffle. I was suspended and she was not, and I didn’t understand what that meant. I knew what the N-word meant but I didn’t understand what it meant in different outcomes, particularly educational outcomes for Black versus white students. 

As I grew, I noticed the inequities growing up in a primarily Black neighborhood. I remember going from one side of town to the other side of town and noticing things were different. It wasn’t until I got to college when I had the words to articulate those differences. And those differences I was seeing were a result of systematic, structural racism. I also began to look at the impact of these inequities, whether it was education or healthcare or any other setting that contributes to health inequities. 

In college I started looking into the mental health outcomes because I majored in psychology, and that’s when I really went "all in” to really understand where health disparities come from. That really drove my passion to focus on Black health.  

My mother, like many African American women, has dealt with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, and I’ve been able to walk with her as she engages with the healthcare system. It’s been a challenge for me, as an educated person, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for the people who don’t have an educated family member who can walk them through this healthcare process. And imagine if they don’t even speak English, you know? 

So, my personal experiences, my educational experiences, and my experiences now identifying the lack of a public health agenda for the Black population in the City of Long Beach has really driven me and motivated me to do something about it. 

Why is this an important initiative?  

Johnson: When Black people stepped foot in this country as slaves, they were never compensated for their time, for the brutality, for being raped, for being scarred, bruised. Never compensated or acknowledged for the physical trauma, which we call Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, where the fears and the psychological trauma that have been passed down still resonate today in Black residents. 

My grandmother, whose mother died when she was 7, believes her mother was experimented on because she thinks she died of scarlet fever, but her death certificate lists her cause of death as stomach cancer. So now, the way she engages the healthcare system is how other people in our family, my mother and uncle, engage the healthcare system. These are things that haven’t been addressed or acknowledged to the degree that they should.  

Now the City of Long Beach and our CSULB community have the opportunity to acknowledge that and be a leader in really stepping forward to address how all that trauma contributes to health disparities and allow a space for Black people to be culturally centered so they can develop how they want to achieve health equity. 

Who is on your team and what are they tasked with?  

Johnson: The Black Health Equity Team is made up of myself, Health Department employees Gwendolyn Manning, Crystal Lawrence, and Andrea Lee, and four Cal State Long Beach student interns: Aden Tefera, Chelsea Okundolor, Noemi Mendez, and Victoria Davis. This project we are doing now is focusing on the Black Health Equity Fund, which was made to develop funding for Black-serving organizations to address COVID-19 in the Black Long Beach community. We were able to award funding to 16 Black-serving organizations so they could make COVID care packages for Black residents, develop culturally affirming health education and outreach, a virtual training culturally tailored for Black residents, and a culturally tailored healthy resource guide. It also allowed us to fund five mental health providers.

The interns have been assigned different organizations to help and provide support to and help determine what their needs are, how they can promote it, what barriers they have and how we can help them overcome it. 

We are currently working on a report to move the needle forward and determine where we are and what we need to do to address Black health disparities in Long Beach. We want to be accountable to the Black community about what we have done and how the money was spent, and what outreach and what outcomes we’re going to achieve with this funding allocation because we want to build trust. 

What change has the program already made in the Black community of Long Beach? 

Johnson: This is the first time that I know of where there has been an initiative that is culturally tailored to Black residents in Long Beach.  

It’s important to focus on specific cultural backgrounds like Black residents because of the unique historical trauma that has happened to Black people as well as the unique cultural characteristics that facilitate quality of life. We need an opportunity and a space to address this because even though Black people make up around 12% of the Long Beach population, they account for some of the highest disparities in the city. We can’t have good health or quality health without health equity for Black people. 

Other racial and ethnic groups definitely matter and should be fully supported, but there must be an opportunity for us to acknowledge the unique cultural and historical context that comes with identifying as Black. That’s the only way to move forward and address these health disparities. 

We have to continue to grow because we owe this to the Black community. I think allowing these disparities to go on so long unaddressed is sad. 

What impact do you hope this program will make? 

Johnson: I hope the program builds trust. The Black community in Long Beach has a very good reason not to trust people who are working for, or working with, institutions like the City of Long Beach or Cal State Long Beach. I hope that the Black community will trust this and trust that we’re working with them and not against them or trying to exploit them too. That would be my first main goal, to have a trusted relationship with the community that we’re here to serve. 

My next goal personally would be to create opportunities for people of all races and ethnicities to focus genuinely and authentically on Black health. I want to create an environment in which residents have power and control over what happens in their community.  

I would like to build a program where the Black community can understand how to communicate with faculty members about what research projects they want to see in their communities, decide on what programs we focus on, and move the needle forward. I hope we create a model for this across the nation. 

Student interns (from left) Victoria Davis, Noemi Mendez, Chelsea Okundolor, (below) Aden Tefera