2021 Building A Culture of Health Highlights

February 10, 2022


Anderson Kicks Off Conference

The NJ YMCA State Alliance co-sponsored the 9th annual Building a Culture of Health in New Jersey Conference: Healing Communities & Connecting Voices, on December 10th at Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center in Atlantic City, NJ.
“Our goal for this year’s Conference was to address how we can work together to produce and implement scalable, sustainable and data-informed interventions to improve the health and well-being of all communities," said Dr. Darrin Anderson, CEO of the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance. Almost 200 people attended in person, and close to 400 public health professionals, social workers, educators, dietitians, and community leaders from across the state attended virtually. This year's conference was free due to the support of their many sponsors and included a special interactive workshop training session “Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE)" sponsored by RWJBarnabas health.
From health equity to racial bias and stories of loss, kindness and resilience during the pandemic, expert speakers and panelists shared best practices and solutions through a variety of innovative educational sessions designed to help move our communities forward.
On Thursday, December 9, about 175 people attended a special exhibition of Community Conversations: Pandemic Perspectives, New Jersey’s COVID-19 Storytelling Project from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm. The exhibit showcased selected COVID-19 experiences shared by New Jersey residents in 2020 through interviews, stories, creative works and animations.

Persichilli Discusses the Pandemic’s Impact on Communities of Color

Judith Persichilli, Commissioner of Health, acknowledged the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color in her remarks, including Black and Hispanic residents getting hospitalized at 2.5 times the rate of their white counterparts and dying at double the rate. "The pandemic laid bare the continuing health equity challenges in our state and nationally," she said, highlighting systemic healthcare racism as a contributing factor to those inequities. "We consistently viewed all of our actions during the pandemic through a health equity lens, focusing on bringing testing, and vaccines, and other resources to communities who are underserved." She committed to continuing that work, adding, "Working together, we can learn from this ongoing pandemic, we can invest more in our communities, we can strengthen efforts to build connections to better health and recovery."

Representative Andy Kim Shares Legislative Efforts to Ensure Residents Have Food on the Table

Representative Andy Kim, who represents New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District in Burlington and Ocean Counties, focused on the efforts of the Ocean County YMCA to help feed residents when they lost jobs and had trouble putting meals on the table. He has introduced legislation with the help of the NJ YMCA State Alliance that would continue summer meal programs and remove barriers families face in accessing them. "Hunger was a problem before the pandemic, and it's going to be a huge problem in the years to come," he said. Kim also noted other legislative efforts underway that he said, "are going to have important and historic investments when it comes to our children and our families – whether that's for child care funding, health care premiums staying down, or continuing with the child tax credit."

Morning Keynote Speaker — Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi: “The Deep Roots of Inequality: Pushing Boundaries to Advance Equitable Care”

Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi, founder of the Cherry Hill Free Clinic and medical director of care management initiatives for the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, offered attendees a ground view of what it has been like fighting the pandemic while also confronting ingrained systemic racism in the healthcare system. He noted the example of Dr. Susan Moore in Indiana, whose COVID-19 symptoms had been downplayed and ignored by a white doctor before she died. "This here is a metaphor for what is going on," Dr. Oyeyemi said. "It's the plea of a people who are perpetually ignored." He also discussed how his organization's community ambassador program, which included neighbors going door-to-door to encourage vaccinations, led Camden to go from a 40% adult vaccination rate to 75% in six months.

Afternoon Keynote Speaker — Dave Ellis: “What’s Strong With You? A Conversation About Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) versus (ACEs)"

Dave Ellis, executive director of the NJ Office of Resilience, gave an enthralling talk about community and what it takes to build it meaningfully, inviting audience members to get to know each other better. "I know a whole bunch of folks who don't agree with the world according to data, and the biggest conversation that I like having with them is, 'Help me understand how you got there,'" he said. "I don't have to like you to appreciate that by which you have come to see the world differently than I do." Ellis also mentioned the importance of taking care of oneself, acknowledging trauma and its impact on people's lives, and finding ways to relieve stress. "What are you doing for you?" he asked as a final question in the interactive keynote session.

Breakout Session — Healthcare Racism, Bias & COVID-19

In a session on "Healthcare Racism, Bias and COVID-19: A Call to Action," Dr. Margaret Fisher, special adviser to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, and Dr. Patricia Whitley-Williams, professor of pediatrics and division chief at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, expanded on Commissioner Persichilli's earlier remarks on health disparities among communities of color. She also explained the longstanding and persistent inequities driving them. For example, there were fewer COVID-19 sites in communities of color, drive-through testing sites left out individuals without cars, and essential workers struggled to get time off for testing. They discussed the importance of implicit bias training, with Dr. Whitley-Williams noting a study that has documented and demonstrated the existence of discrimination in the medical field. "I think it was a wakeup call to make sure that we are training and educating the future physicians of tomorrow regarding this inequity in treatment," she said.

Breakout Session — What We’ve Learned About Mental Health

One afternoon breakout session focused on "What We Have Learned About Mental Health in 2020 & 2021," with several mental health experts on the panel discussing the high rates of depression, trauma and anxiety, particularly among minority women who are essential workers. Elsa Candelario, a professor of professional practice and director of Latina/o/x Initiatives for Service, Training, and Assessment at the Rutgers School of Social Work, noted that there is a one-year waiting list for bilingual counseling services because of a shortage of Spanish-speaking social workers. Dr. Jesselly De La Cruz, executive director of Latino Action Network Foundation, talked about the disproportionate number of young Latino men who died of COVID-19, attributing it to jobs that put them at greater risk of exposure, and the stress that created in their communities. Siomara Wedderburn, director of wellness at Urban Promise in Camden, also discussed the stresses on young people and low-income families. "We are entering into a national mental health crisis," noted Dr. Tamarra Jones, interim school psychologist at Rahway Public Schools. "We're finding that people who have generally considered themselves very healthy, are experiencing significantly negative impacts."

This Year’s Conference Kicked Off by Community Conversations: Pandemic Perspectives, New Jersey’s COVID-19 Storytelling Project

This year’s Culture of Health Conference: Healing Communities & Connecting Voices, was a two-day event. It was kicked off by Community Conversations: Pandemic Perspectives, New Jersey’s COVID-19 Storytelling Project with a special evening exhibit on December 9th at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. It featured live presentations from selected individuals who submitted stories for the project. About 175 people attended the reception and cheered on participants as they shared their powerful experiences through art, music, dance, and poetry.
The project gathered, documented, and analyzed the stories of more than 580 New Jersey residents from all 21 counties during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of their works were displayed throughout this conference. Story submissions were analyzed by the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs to identify themes and key disparities. The report will provide recommendations to New Jersey providers and policymakers around health policies and future programming. The majority of the Community Conversations submissions have been digitally archived by the NJ State Library.
For more information about the project and to read the report visit: njymca.org/communityconversations