by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
During a conversation with Shannon Wilson, she will tell you difficult truths about our community: African American infants in Kent County are 3 times more likely than Caucasian babies to die before reaching the age of 1; African Americans in West Michigan are 1.8 times more likely to die from a stroke than Caucasians; the breast cancer mortality rate for black women in our county is 25 percent higher than white women. These are some of the numbers behind the vast inequities between racial populations in our community when it comes to health outcomes.
She will also tell you something that will inspire you: “I run into a lot of people who have a lot of challenges that would cause most of us to move on or just give up, but they keep going and try to achieve their best. I feel like I was put on this earth to help people achieve their best self.”
Wilson works as the Executive Director of the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI). Established in 2002, GRAAHI is an independent, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) that operates under the mission to eliminate inequities within our healthcare system and foster positive health outcomes in Grand Rapids’ African American community through advocacy, education and research.
“We are really looking at how we create equity overall in healthcare,” Wilson expressed. “Our mission is to eliminate the racism that causes these inequities today.”
For leading a half-dozen staff members, managing grants and courting potential GRAAHI funders along with serving as adjunct faculty for Grand Valley State University and on-call faculty for Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine and pursuing a doctorate in public health leadership from the University of Illinois-Chicago, Wilson’s demeanor is disarmingly calm. But beneath her gentle manner, one senses an acute, uncompromising focus gleaned from a career working on the front lines of public health in the Digital Age.
“If we are not doing well for all populations [in our community], are we truly successful?” she expressed. “What type of disservice are we doing to minority populations that are also residents in our communities if we are not addressing their health needs?”
Growing up in Kalamazoo, Wilson excelled at math and science. As a student at MSU, she sought to be a gynecologist until she was introduced to epidemiology— a branch of medicine that pertains to finding the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations—and she decided to pursue public health, a career that appealed to her benevolence.
“I have always enjoyed the idea of helping people,” Wilson commented.
In 2004, after earning her Masters of Public Health in Hospital and Molecular Epidemiology from the University of Michigan, she became the first Health Disparities Epidemiologist for the State of Michigan. Wilson says she stepped into the role during a pivotal point in the history of public health in Michigan. Many states had offices of minority health, but their potential success was limited due to being isolated from the rest of the state’s health department; the need to fully infuse disparity reduction across the board was becoming more and more evident.
“Bringing in a Health Disparities Epidemiologist says that if we are truly going to be successful in eliminating the disparities in healthcare by race, then each and every part of the public health department has to own a piece of it,” Wilson expressed.
Wilson spent her time supporting other epidemiologists and departments as they assessed how they stratified their data by race, a vital function, for at the time collecting data by race for state and local programs was a newly mandated procedure.
“We really drilled down and created systems and mechanisms for everyone to collect data by race and ethnicity,” she commented. “That was one of the biggest projects I worked on.”
This new method of amassing data allowed the Michigan Department of Health and Services to provide health statistics based on race and ethnicity by district to congressional leaders, giving them a clear picture of what inequity looks like in their communities to help them shape solutions.
While the work was as satisfying as it was challenging, Wilson gleaned valuable lessons about bureaucracy that she carries with her in her role today.
“I learned that while change may seem simple, it’s actually very difficult to implement,” Wilson reflected. “And often times, the decisions made around health care have very little do with health. That was the hardest thing to learn.”
After four years with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Wilson took a position as a Domestic Scientific Program Coordinator at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. There, she spent 18 months working on the Minority Aids Research Initiative (MARI) Project developing sex education programs for children ages 8-9 in order to delay the onset of sexual activity in major urban populations; data showed that 40-50 percent of males within those populations were sexually active by the sixth grade.
“That was just earth-shattering to me at the time,” Wilson commented.
She tested tools to aid parents in recognizing teachable moments and empower them to set their own values when educating their children about sex. The program was implemented in 18 sites across the country
and five sites in Africa, allowing her to witness how different populations react to the same teaching materials.
“It was a fascinating project,” Wilson beamed. “I really enjoyed it.”
A marriage proposal from her long-distance boyfriend brought her back to The Mitten. In 2008 she took a job with the Alliance for Health, a now defunct non-profit that worked to reduce costs in healthcare. There, she gained non-profit administration experience that is valuable to her work managing grants and funding at GRAAHI.
She was asked to serve as a part-time in-loan executive for GRAAHI in 2010, and transitioned to the role full-time in 2014.
“I have been here ever since,” she smiled.
Fifteen years ago, GRAAHI was founded to address the health disparities among adults in Grand Rapids. The organization has since evolved to focus on eliminating inequities in all aspects of health care.
With a team of epidemiologists who collect, record and disseminate data, the Institute has more than a half-dozen reports and policy briefs pertaining to African American health outcomes in Kent County available on their website for anyone to view. They provide education on topics such as cardiovascular disease, environmental hazards, smoking cessation and healthy eating, and partner with healthcare systems to deliver programming to the community; this, along with a number of community initiatives aimed at empowering people to raise healthy families, comprise GRAAHI’s multi-pronged approach toward eradicating the astonishing healthcare inequities in Kent County.
“As we move toward achieving that, our vision is to see an environment where race is no longer a factor in the healthcare you receive,” Wilson expressed.
Wilson emphasizes that racism in healthcare often does not necessarily happen as people might imagine it to; rather than being overt, it’s often subconscious and systemic, stemming from preconceived notions and policies and procedures that in nature discriminate toward specific groups.
“Everyone goes into medicine to do their best every day to meet the needs of every patient that walks through the door,” she commented. “But everyone also has preconceived notions. How those affect our medicine and our ability to deliver medicine is what we are a really focused on.”
Along with aiming to improve health outcomes in vulnerable populations, GRAAHI is working on an initiative to help healthcare systems better reflect the communities they serve. The organization recently partnered with seven colleges and universities across West Michigan to create pathways toward advanced practice careers in healthcare for minority students.
“Knowledge is power. If we want to empower people to make change within their community, we have to give them the tools necessary to do that.” – Shannon Wilson, Executive Director of GRAHHI
“We want to get to a point where the nurse that rounds on you is a minority patient,” she expressed. “Or the doctor who comes in, or the occupational therapist you see after your stay. We are looking at how we get to that place.”
With Wilson’s professional history, along with her passion for public health and commitment to the big picture, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect person for the task she has undertaken. GRAAHI founder and CEO Paul Doyle speaks to how essential she is to the success of the institute’s mission.
“We [GRAAHI] accelerated when Shannon came on board,” Doyle expressed. “With her background and her understanding of community health, she is the perfect person to lead the institute into the future. She is innovative and insightful…I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
There is no such thing as an average day for Wilson. Along with balancing her tasks at GRAAHI and fulfilling her teaching duties at GVSU and MSU, she also occupies another important role: Mom to two young girls, ages 7 and 1.
“I am of the mindset that women can achieve anything they want, so raising girls is right up my alley,” she smiled.
Wilson and her husband are intentional about imparting a healthy lifestyle to their daughters; they often ride bikes, take walks, play basketball and go the YMCA as a family. Healthy meals can be a challenge for busy parents, but Wilson makes an effort to cook at home and provide healthy snacks, such as sugar-free Jello with fruit, and peanut butter and crackers.
“Children learn from example,” she said. “If they see me eating fast food, that’s what they will want. But if they see me making conscious decisions about my food and health, they will too.”
She comments that her work with GRAAHI is humbling to her as a mother.
“I want to give them [my daughters] the healthiest life possible,” she said. “I wake up very humble because in this work I see on a daily basis people who have negative health outcomes. I consider myself fortunate every day, and I want my children to understand how fortunate they are.”
Statistics have been the powerful nucleus around which Wilson’s career has revolved. As she describes the inequities within our community, her soothing voice impresses the gravity of the numbers while also transmitting an unwavering belief that change will be affected by those who rise to meet the challenge.
“Data is power,” she expressed. “Knowledge is power. If we want to empower people to make change within their community, we have to give them the tools necessary to do that—and data is one of those tools.”
Wilson’s efforts and those of the GRAAHI staff are already helping to change the tide. Although African American infants experience mortality at a rate 3 times of their Caucasian counterparts, three years ago it was closer to 5 times. Wilson states that one of the programs responsible for that outcome is Strong Beginnings, a community-wide collaborative among GRAAHI and several partners. Strong Beginnings was born several years ago from collective appall at the infant mortality disparity. The program provides support services for mothers and their babies for 24 months after delivery, assists with transportation, provides food, supplies, medical care and education, and includes a strong emphasis on fatherhood. Though the disparity is shrinking, there is still much work to be done.
“We have to pay serious attention to the fact that these inequities exist in our community,” Wilson emphasized. “We can be advocates for our fellow community members—we can be the best champions for our neighbors.”
While shifting numbers attest to the success of her work, Wilson describes the thrill of seeing the results of GRAAHI’s efforts with her own eyes.
“I see people walking and running in communities,” Wilson beamed. “When I eat at restaurants, I see people making healthy choices. Almost every church in our community has a health ministry. It feels like we are moving the needle—it may be one person at a time, but that is how it starts. It’s a beautiful feeling.”