Breanna Reeves and Aryana Noroozi
As Black communities and communities of color across the Inland Empire experienced fatal outcomes and faced challenges to accessing adequate care throughout the pandemic (and before), one community leader wanted to disrupt the narrative by equipping the residents with tools and resources to help themselves.
Last August, Michelle Burroughs, M.P.H, director of Community Engagement & Outreach for the Center for Healthy Communities (CHC) at the University of Riverside, California (UCR), launched a series of town hall events that focused on COVID-19, Long Haul COVID and the importance of being an advocate for oneself.
Bringing a vision to life
With the support of her small, but mighty team (Selina Hernandez and Shaleta Smith), Burroughs organized a series of town halls that welcomed Black providers, including epidemiologists, health directors and other medical professionals to give residents first-hand knowledge about COVID-19 in their communities and allow them to ask questions about their own health concerns.
In addition to organizing these town halls across Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, Burroughs was one of the lead organizers of the fourth annual Health Disparities Research Symposium that took place in February.
The two-day event brought together top researchers, medical professionals and stakeholders across Southern California to discuss pressing issues that are impacting communities in the Inland region and present ways in which they are addressing issues of equity and access.
Burroughs’ passion for health and her community has not gone unnoticed as she was recently the 2022 recipient of the Staff Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award by the UCR School of Medicine.
“In my 30+ years of experience in the field of public health, I have found that it is exceedingly rare for a single individual to possess a transformative vision and have the commitment, discipline, and ability to methodically move a team forward to achieve that vision,” said one of the people who nominated Burroughs for the award. “Michelle is one of those rare individuals.”
Black Voice News spoke with Burroughs about her work, what inspires her, and what she hopes to continue to accomplish in her role.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BVN: Congratulations on your award for Staff Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You’ve organized town hall events for the public, organized the health disparities symposium and continue to inform the community about health issues that impact them. What motivates you to do this work?
Burroughs: I think it started young, just observing my family. It was something in the culture of our family. My grandparents really instilled in us the importance of giving back to the community and serving your community. Then, my brother was diagnosed with some health issues, so that got me interested in pursuing health and it just came together as a perfect match, going into the public health field. I’m able to serve my community and I’m also able to work to improve our community’s health outcomes.
So, that’s what motivates me. I really am passionate about health and people living healthy lifestyles, achieving optimal health and not physically looking a certain way, just being healthy as human beings, and the importance of making that a priority. Because if you don’t have good health, you don’t have a good quality of life.
BVN: With March marking Women’s History Month, is there a woman from history that has influenced or inspired you? If so, why?
Burroughs: I have to say my family, again. My mother really inspired me to make health a priority and not only just physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually — and don’t be ashamed to work on yourself, don’t feel bad if you realize you need some emotional help.
There’s nothing wrong with having moments where you’re like, ‘okay, my mental health is not in a good place and I need to either seek therapy or just take a moment and kind of reassess my life.’ But, my mom was really instrumental in just her character and how she treated people. I’m just inspired to be a better person each and every day because of the model that my mom presented and the way she risked her life and how she treated people.
BVN: I attended several Long Haul COVID Town Hall events last year and one thing I noticed is that many of the doctors and experts invited to speak have been Black women in medicine. With Black doctors accounting for just under 6% of all physicians in the U.S., what impact does learning and hearing from Black physicians have on these local communities?
Burroughs: Oh, representation is everything. I think that we understand each other, we understand each other’s way of speaking, cultural things, whether it be the food you like to eat, how we move about. You can say little, simple things to a Black physician and they get it — you don’t have to tell the whole story. For example, if I’m concerned — us, as Black women, we care about our hair, right? — I go in and I’m having challenges with my hair. I can go into a Black dermatologist and say, ‘I have signs of losing hair.’
They understand the significance in that, where a non Black dermatologist will be like, ‘oh, you’re getting older. It’s thinning. It’s not that big of a deal, just calm down.’ But the Black dermatologist will say, ‘what are your stress levels? What’s going on in your life?’ They will really delve into it because they understand there’s unspoken things that they get. I think it just helps bring about calm when you go to a Black provider because that part is eliminated.
I am a huge proponent, as you know, of representation and making sure that we highlight our Black providers that are out there because, as you said, there’s not very many of them. So any, and each one of them that I come in contact with, I’m always like, ‘Hey, at some point in time, I’m gonna call on you to be able to come out and speak to our community because your voice matters and they need to see us in these spaces.’
BVN: What are some goals you hope to accomplish this year, professionally and/or personally?
Burroughs: I am pursuing my doctorate in Health Administration. I did that because, again, representation matters. I have been fortunate to be able to serve the community and build trust and build strong relationships with the community. And they listen to the things that I say, thankfully, and they appreciate the opportunities to come together to be able to talk with Black providers in this space. But I realized at a certain point that there were limits being placed on me because I did not have a doctorate.
I don’t want any limits being placed on what I’m able to do and how I’m able to be of service to my community. I’m well in my program and I’m very excited about it. I want to be able to use that to get into spaces, expand my reach, be able to be in the media and potentially speak on television as a respected, credentialed individual speaking on this topic. Unfortunately, because of how society is, if you don’t have certain initials behind your name, you’re not seen as credible.
So, I’m doing that personally and professionally, so that I can expand my reach in engaging our community and make sure that we understand that no one’s coming to save us. We have to make our health a priority and do the things that we need to do to change the narrative of our health outcomes.
I really want to expand the work that we’re doing here in the Inland Empire. I’m hoping that we have an opportunity to engage more individuals who will come and will listen and will understand that, again, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.
We have to come together as a community. We have to share our lived experiences. We have to work together and see how we can change the system because the fact is the system is racially biased and there’s discriminatory practices that are happening. When we show up and present ourselves, we’re not going to be viewed or not going to be listened to or heard. And we need to learn how to advocate for ourselves.
BVN: Reflecting back on the last five years of your career, what’s the highlight?
Burroughs: I’ll say, just engaging the community. I feel so fortunate to be in this position. My career has continued to grow and advance. I wasn’t as intentional as I think some people think I was, as far as moving about, but I’ve had an opportunity to work in for-profit [settings], nonprofit [settings], in the community, in hospital settings and now I’m in the academic space.
I have just been really, really fortunate to be able to engage the community in all those different spaces and to make, what I believe, a meaningful impact in the lives of whichever community I was serving at that time.
I just feel very fortunate that people continue to want to engage. I’ve learned so much from the community and I know that people want to live healthier lifestyles, people want that for themselves. Oftentimes, they don’t have the tools or the language to be able to do so. So, reflecting back, I’m just very happy that I’ve been able to be in certain spaces and be able to sit at certain tables and make sure that our voice is heard, and being in a position now where I can affect change, I can make decisions that will make good impacts in the lives of our community members.
I’m just happy that God has blessed me to be able to be in the spaces that I’ve been in and be able to maybe change the direction of certain things.
BVN: What advice would you give to the next generation of women who seek to make impacts in their own communities?
Burroughs: Be true to yourself. Be really honest about your intentions. Whatever field you’re in, make sure that you think it through. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be an easy road. When you’re trying to make a difference overall — especially when you’re working in the health field — it’s not going to be an easy road traveled, but stay persistent. Make sure that you take care of yourself because if you’re not healthy, if you’re not in a good place emotionally, physically and everything, you really can’t care for others.
So, as they always say, put your own oxygen mask on before you try to revive or save someone else. Make sure that your intentions are always to do the right thing in every scenario. Again, it’s not going to be an easy road traveled, you will have to make some hard decisions. The higher you climb, you will be put into positions where your integrity will be put into question. You’re going to have to make some hard decisions. Always keep your integrity intact and always try to do the right thing.
BVN:What can the community expect to learn from the upcoming community event with Dr. Glenda Newell-Harris?
Burroughs: We’re being very intentional, very actionable. Most of our town halls and community conversations have been geared around education [and] educating ourselves because knowledge is power. But now we’re moving more into action.
We want people to have those tangible tools and resources and talking points to be able to do the things that they need to do to ensure that their health is moving forward in a good direction. How do I navigate the healthcare system? How do I advocate for myself and my family? I’m so excited because Dr. Newell-Harris is going to be coming to us and presenting and educating us on how we advocate for ourselves and our families, but it’s going to be a workshop.
So, please come and be willing to engage and exchange dialogue. We’re going to have an interactive workshop where we’re going to talk about case scenarios, we’re going to have real examples about how individuals have gone to seek health care and maybe it didn’t go as well as it could have gone.
We’re going to walk our participants through that and give them key points and help them with their own scenarios. I’m super excited about the trajectory and the direction that we’re taking our conversations because we really want to empower our community to take responsibility.
My personal goal is to change the narrative and remove the word disproportionately. I’m so tired of hearing that placed in front of the Black community’s narrative, especially around health. We’re disproportionately affected by everything. We die at higher rates from everything. Every health issue is disproportionately [affecting] the Black community. I want to erase that verbiage. I want us to change that narrative together. And that’s the only way we can do it, is together.
BVN: Anything else you’d like to add?
Burroughs: I really want to put a plea out there to our Black community. We really have to make our health a priority. I know a lot of us are kind of in survival mode, just trying to make it day by day. But again, I say this all the time: if you don’t have your health, really, you don’t have anything and you can’t live a good quality of life.
I would ask all of us, especially women, because we’re the ones who make things happen. We’re the ones who make the world go around. So really as women, as Black women, as women representing a woman of color, I would ask that we stop and before we start taking care of everybody else, which we are naturally going to do, that we take a look and take care of our own health and do an assessment of our own health and well being.
Are we good? Are we good physically? Do we have any physical ailments that are going on? Do we have any mental challenges that are going on? Take assessment of ourselves and really try to work on ourselves, so we can be present and be the best that we want to be for others.
The upcoming CHC community event will be a workshop on how to advocate for yourself and family led by Dr. Glenda Newell-Harris. The event will be hosted at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts (3834 Main St, Riverside, CA 92501) on March 30, 2023, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Learn more about the event and how to register here.