Last summer 2015, Leslie decided to write an open letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asking for their commitment to declare racism a national healthcare crisis. The CDC is a powerful and highly influential federal organization responsible for tracking and solving healthcare issues throughout our country, and they are THE authoritative source for all healthcare monitoring and prevention work in the U.S.
Their mission statement reads:
CDC works 24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S. Whether diseases start at home or abroad, are chronic or acute, curable or preventable, human error or deliberate attack, CDC fights disease and supports communities and citizens to do the same.
CDC increases the health security of our nation. As the nation’s health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats. To accomplish our mission, CDC conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise.
Having this in mind, Leslie wrote the following:
Dr. Tom Frieden
Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA, 30329
Dear Dr. Frieden,
I am a primary care provider, a Navy veteran, anti-racist health equity advocate, and single
mother of two. I am black, and I am a healer. I’ve spent more than 15 years helping people cope
with a wide spectrum of health issues, particularly Black Americans.
My mother was a prominent nurse who was turned down for the largest hospital-based nursing
program in Northwest Ohio because of her race. She graduated from St. Vincent’s School of
Nursing, devoting her life to surgical, teaching and public health nursing. She and her peers
started the Ohio Association of Black Nurses in response to the Ohio Association of Nurses
refusing her membership. My father was a firefighter. Despite risking his life in the service of
others, he and his co-workers of color were not welcome in the Ohio State Firefighters
Association. They started a branch of the International Association of Black Firefighters. He
fought fires on the streets and racism in the firehouse, which stresses contributed to his early
heart attack at 45 and his demise from heart disease at 61.
My experiences and observations have shaped many ideals and beliefs which I hold dear today. I
grew up an activist, stuffing envelopes and encouraging my neighbors to register to vote. The civil
rights movement brought hope. It brought the notion of breaking free from the confines of race
and racism as experienced by black people. Fifty years later, it is a promise unfulfilled.
Like many of my colleagues in healthcare, I look to CDC for guidance on public health policy and
prevention. But I wake up every morning frustrated and perplexed by what the CDC fails to
articulate: racism is, and continues to be, one of the great public health threats this country
has ever faced. The consequences range from disproportionately high rates of low birthweight
babies to heart disease and stroke to higher rates of school expulsion, deaths of unarmed people
and high rates of incarceration.
This clearly meets the CDC’s own criteria for a formal, justified, public health problem:
- The health condition must place a large burden on society, a burden that is getting larger
despite existing control efforts
- The burden must be distributed unfairly (i.e., certain segments of the population are
- There must be evidence that upstream preventive strategies could substantially reduce
the burden of the condition
- Such preventive strategies are not yet in place
Dr. Frieden, it’s time for the CDC to make a formal declaration: Racism has created and
maintains a public health crisis. As an American medical professional, my citizenship and
expertise entitle me to firmly request your assistance. Do you awake every morning, week after
week, year upon year, as frustrated by our lack of progress?
Due to disparate treatment based on race, deaths and infirmities in communities of color
continue to climb at an alarming rate. This coupled with other health determinants such as
education, employment and incarceration rates continue to exacerbate the problem and disturb
the collective American consciousness. This is a critical juncture in our society where it
appears we can finally, FINALLY, address racism at the root and begin to heal. It would be
most appropriate to make this proclamation before our civil rights and minority health workers
give up hope. Let them trust that the CDC will take this significant step toward social justice and
I too have chosen to take action. I share these frustrations felt by millions of Americans, many of
whom cannot begin to express the stress. I write to you to announce my leadership with a new,
national campaign called Right to Health Now! The intergenerational transmission of “lesser
than” affects us all at an epidemiologic level, for we are all connected, regardless of color. I am
encouraged by how many people across the country have hit a collective, social resolve to make
change even if they are not sure where to start. For example, I have experienced a tremendous
increase of antiracist and trauma recovery activists in Portland, OR where I live. I have met
others in other cities across the country doing similar work because we MUST. We all ask that
the CDC declares racism a threat to public health and make combatting racism a public
health prevention priority. Please recognize and augment the efforts of Right To Health Now
and other similar grassroots efforts.
I respectfully request a response in the next 30 days. Thank you for your attention.
Leslie Gregory, PA-C
Right to Health Now!
Read the CDC’s response to Leslie’s letter here.