This is the third in a series of conversations with BUILD awardees in celebration of National Public Health Week. You can read the first here and second here.

Public health departments are a cornerstone of well-being in our nation. They play a vital role in the community-driven, multi-sector partnerships that are central to our mission at The BUILD Health Challenge® to achieve just health outcomes for all. In celebration of National Public Health Week this week, we would like to highlight the important work that public health agencies have done, and continue to do, as an integral part of their BUILD community, as well as the people behind that work. 

Lauren Henricksen is a community health specialist at the Clark County Public Health Department in Washington state. Her collaborative, part of the current BUILD cohort, is focused on reducing health and economic disparities experienced by families on the Fourth Plain corridor of Vancouver, WA.

What was your role within your BUILD collaborative? Why did you and your health department decide to get involved in the BUILD project in your community?

We have acted as a convener for our BUILD project, facilitating meetings, bringing partners together, driving the agenda and ensuring that our collective work is coordinated and continues to move forward. We also play a role in evaluating our work and setting up systems so we can track our progress and impact over time. Public health has made our collaborative more data-driven, and has ensured that health equity, social determinants of health, and a policy and systems lens are infused into the work of our collaborative. We have also been the primary broker of relationships between our collaborative and our health system partners.

Our public health department has been working to address chronic disease and health disparities in our county for many years. We have been working in the focus area of our BUILD project for quite some time because of the health disparities residents experience. So when the BUILD Health Challenge presented an opportunity to really jumpstart our work around housing affordability and mental health, we jumped at the chance to propel that work forward.

Building on the last year, which included a racial justice movement, a global pandemic, and a growing economic divide, how do you think public health will be impacted going forward? What do you see your role, and the role of the local public health department, being in this change?

My hope is that public health will be better funded as our elected leaders and the public recognize the role we can play in working for racial justice and in responding to public health crises like the pandemic. I hope that as more and more people (myself included) come to understand racism as a public health crisis, we will respond with the same urgency with which we responded to the pandemic. I hope working toward health equity and advancing policies and systems changes in housing, education, and economic opportunity become central to how public health functions, even though they don’t always seem like traditional public health work.

What is one thing you wish people knew about the work you do?

I wish more people understood why the work I do in communities to bring about changes in affordable housing, food access, transportation, and economic opportunity is related and essential to improving public health. Whenever I say I work in public health, people immediately think I work in communicable disease or environmental public health. While those are absolutely essential and important public health functions, improving the conditions where people live, work, and play is also critical to protecting and promoting healthy communities into the future. We have a lot of work ahead of us in public health to make that work visible and understandable so we have the chance to work alongside many others to make healthy, equitable, vibrant communities accessible to everyone.

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Adam Britton is an intern with the BUILD Health Challenge. He will graduate from the University of Maryland in May 2021.