Shifting the Framework for Public Health

To enact the structural and policy changes to realize our radical vision for public health, we need to get really clear on what public health is, does, and can do.

After nearly a year of the global pandemic, we are in need of a new vision and narrative for the purpose, power, and strategies of public health.

In 2020, public health became a catchphrase in popular discourse. In news media surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the uprisings against policing and in defense of Black lives, the term was often deployed to spotlight how various systemic crises cause harm and violence. We rightly asserted that “Racism is a public health crisis” and demanded that our decision-makers “Defund the police, invest in health”.

In order to enact the structural and policy changes necessary to realize a radical vision of public health, we must clarify what public health is and does, as well as what it can do.

What is public health?

Public health is the radical concept that everyone has a fundamental right to the conditions and opportunities required for optimal health and wellbeing.

This includes housing, education, living wages, good jobs, food, clean air, water, soil, a stable climate, and belonging. All of these systems and factors are necessary for health, and structural racism shapes each of them. This is precisely why COVID-19 has hit Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities the hardest, and why dismantling structural and institutional racism must be at the core of any work toward health equity.

The power of public health narratives

The narratives that are disseminated and perpetuated in our public discourse are a form of power we must leverage to transform public health.

Dominant narratives about public health are narrowly focused on health care and individual behaviors, rather than on the policies, systems, culture, and environments that support collective wellbeing. As a result, popular understandings of public health tend to be myopic, with the onus of responsibility placed on the individual, rather than the collective. Budgets, policies, government infrastructure, and systems then flow from and reflect this.

A transformative vision for public health

The Biden-Harris administration has made some positive moves with recent executive orders to direct investments in COVID-19 containment and vaccinations, to advance health equity, to address institutionalized racism across the Federal government, and integrate public health, racial justice, and climate change in regulatory decisions.

Let’s leverage transformative frameworks for a transformed public health

Resources and framing tools to shift the public health narrative

We all have a powerful role to play in re-imagining and sharing a transformed narrative of public health, grounded in a vision of a future where all have what they need to thrive. Here are some additional resources to deepen your thinking around public health narratives, and to help shift the framework toward collective health:

Engage with health equity communications toolkits

Leverage your public health power to push the Biden-Harris administration for bold, transformative, equitable policy change

Find your squad

  • Join Public Health Awakened, our national network of public health practitioners and allies organizing for health, equity, and justice. Share social justice campaign actions with the Public Health Awakened network to engage the national health equity community.
  • You can also join Public Health Awakened’s First 100 Days Workgroup to put pressure on the Biden-Harris administration to take bold action to advance social justice and health equity. Email sari@humanimpact.org to get involved.

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Human Impact Partners

Human Impact Partners

Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society