Lauren Powell

40 Under 40 Class of 2019

Richmond, Virginia

Director, Office of Health Equity

Virginia Department of Health
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I have leveraged my position to guide deep and meaningful conversations around health outcomes driven by racism, discrimination, and other social inequities among department staff, even while others in leadership have remained silent on this topic. In the days following national headline-making political scandals involving blackface and other explicitly racist costumes dawned by the state's highest ranking leaders, my leadership approach to advancing equity has been tested, but remains resilient.

BOLD SOLUTION: During her time in graduate school, Lauren created “Barbershop Conversations: Convene, Converse, Commit,” which trained health professionals on cultural humility and the art of conversation to address challenges with cultural sensitivity in communication between men of color and health care providers. During one month, more than 30 healthcare professionals completed the cultural humility training and trained volunteers to do health screenings. For some men, the clinic within the barbershop was their first adult encounter with a doctor. The cultural humility training has become a mandatory requirement for volunteers and is now sustained by community health workers who facilitate the training. Lauren also recently led public health community engagement activation at Pharrell’s premiere “Something in the Water” music festival in Virginia Beach, where she and her team engaged festival attendees on community health and distributed 10,000 condoms.

Five Questions for Lauren

Lauren giving a #MedTalk at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association’s annual membership meeting.

1. Who or what inspired you to enter the field of public health?

My family is dying. Since starting my PhD in 2012, I’ve lost 15 family members to terminal and chronic illnesses. Most were under the age of 65, and many were men. While I would like to think of my family as an anomaly, this burden of disease is the norm versus the exception in Black families. The same diseases I see within my immediate family are reflected within the greater Black community. My prior work experience and graduate training taught me about the social determinants that drive the disparities in health, treatment, and premature deaths that are disproportionately prevalent in communities of color. Though my education empowered me with theoretical knowledge, I struggled to find a way to translate this insight into tangible improvements to change the status quo for my surrounding community who needs it most. The field of public health offered me the opportunity to bridge the gap between social justice and health through health equity and I haven’t turned back since.

2. What is one of the most interesting projects you have worked on in public health?

I’m currently working on supporting the Henrietta Lacks Commission, which is a nine-person commission created by Virginia legislation to honor the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks through the creation of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center in southern Virginia. The Center will provide life-saving cancer research and treatment to one of the state’s most underserved significantly African-American populations. I am excited to be a part of public health history in supporting and working on this significant initiative.

3. What are the greatest challenges you face in your public health work or area of focus?

As a young Black woman in a position of leadership, I’ve found that the greatest challenge I face in my public health area of focus is moving public health practitioners, leaders, and trainees to talk frankly about racism and the intersectional paradigms of oppression, and how to move these conversations towards equitable actions to achieve health equity.

4. What’s a story of experience that keeps you going, even when you’re feeling challenged?

When I think about the health inequities experienced by members of my family and community, I am both devastated and determined. I am motivated and inspired to continue working hard toward health equity to keep future generations from experiencing the same losses I have.

5. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Originally, I wanted to be a physician—and a cardiologist, specifically. I also loosely considered being a back-up R&B singer, or a cake decorator.