Renee Mahaffey Harris Improves Health Outcomes

The president and CEO of The Center for Closing the Health Gap wants to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.
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Renee Mahaffey Harris, the president and CEO of The Center for Closing the Health Gap, wants to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.

Photograph courtesy Center for Closing the Health Gap

How have you seen the conversation around health disparities changing?

In the last two years, as the country began to see the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latino communities, I started hearing the words “health disparities.” Before, I felt like I had to explain it. Now, people are starting to understand that no one chooses to be in a circumstance where they are disproportionate. More people have joined the conversation about how to dismantle the barriers that stand in the way of everyone having the same opportunities.

What is your big vision for closing the gap on health disparities?

When race is no longer a construct that plays a role in determining outcomes. When you look at almost every health indicator, they all show a disproportionate mortality rate for Black people, regardless of socioeconomic status. People’s racial construct causes them to have a perception, and that bias winds up impacting the outcome. So, my vision is that we recognize the bias and that we keep it in the forefront of our minds. If we can begin to understand what role we all play in maintaining and perpetuating a bias or inequity in how we treat or perceive a person or situation, I believe we can get there. We are all better when we are all at our best.

Closing the Health Gap starts with the principle that the people most affected by health disparities must lead the movement. What does this look like?

People are wired to say, “I have the solution for you.” Sometimes that goes too far. If you go in someone’s house, you don’t tell them how to cook dinner. It’s the same thing in this work. The person who is impacted must see themselves in the solution, because they need to be able to sustain the solution. It is more sustainable when you come at it from the bottom up. We’ve worked to create an organizational model that activates the individual agency of people, versus just serving them.

Who has helped you along the way?

First and foremost, God. Second, my mother, who is no longer here on this earth. Her principal belief was that everybody comes to their circumstance with baggage. She taught me that if we always see the best in people, we can work to achieve that better place for all of us.

Who or what has stood in your way, and how have you overcome it?

I think I have stood in my own way sometimes, but we learn by failing forward. Overcoming failure has led me to better paths, and to view failure as an opportunity for growth

Why are you the right person for this job, right now?

God has given me these talents and it’s my responsibility to use them to make things better for all of us. I can’t do it all, but I have to recognize that I am in this place for a reason. Also, I’ve never been afraid to stand alone. Even as a kid, I would go in a direction even when no one was following me, but that was okay. When I see an issue, I have to work toward solving it.

How do you stay hopeful as we continue to see health inequities deepen due to COVID-19?

Inequities haven’t necessarily deepened—they have always been here. The change is that more people understand inequities drive the difference. I look at the glass as half-full. There is the opportunity in all this. It’s so important that people have hope and believe that things can be better. We need to peel back the onion and come up with the right policies that move us in a different direction.

Who are some of your favorite women change-makers?

I think about women who were trailblazers in their area of study and leadership, especially Shirley Chisholm, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, and Angela Davis.

Why is big change—especially the kind of change you’re working toward—so hard?

The kind of shifts that we need in our country, our city, our region are hard, because people don’t like or easily accept change. Who wants to give up resources? Who will give up power? There’s a perception that we can’t tackle systematic, structural racism because it’s too big and daunting to even think about. But we have to try, or we’ll be having the same conversations in 20 years. We must be able to be in conversation with each other without penalty.

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