Dr. Earnestine Willis addresses the Class of 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012 7:30:00 PM

The following is the text of the 2012 Winter Commencement Address by Dr. Earnestine Willis: 

Thank you, President Loftus, Board Chairman Myers, Board of Trustees, esteemed members of the platform party, faculty, guests, family members, and most especially each graduate of the 2012 class. It is with great humility and honor that I accept the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Cardinal Stritch University.

Earnestine Willis

I would also like to extend my congratulations to Cardinal Stritch University of marking your 75th anniversary! You should take much pride in your value-centered accomplishments, and I consider it a delight to join you in today’s ceremonial activities.

To my loving family, dearest friends and colleagues who have joined me today to share in this momentous occasion, thank you for your encouragement, respect, support, and most importantly, your persistent and unconditional love!

I am grateful to God and truly honored by this recognition.

Today, I have been invited to share brief words of encouragement with you. For those that know me well, I am sure you will agree that I am rarely brief, but I will try to do my best to be brief and provide you with ideas to ponder that are fitting for this special occasion.

As I stand before you today and recognize that we are in the middle of this GIVING season, I am struck by the rich history of Cardinal Stritch University and how my past and current clinical and academic experiences are so well aligned with the Franciscan values of creating a caring community, showing compassion, reverencing all of creation, and making peace.

Cardinal Stritch University’s values are quite compatible and applicable in health services, as they are in many other professional fields. They are fundamental for effective impact, and they will serve you well if we are to address health equity in underserved communities. The foundational values of “serving others” have allowed me to remain anchored with humility as I have taken on a variety of roles, sometimes as a follower and other times as a leader.

Throughout, no matter what role I have embraced, I have discovered that service to others has enriched and provided immense rewards to my life. Many acts of service were simple acts of being neighborly to pull weeds for the blind neighbor who lived on my block, being a Big Sister or mentor for others, or working at something that needed to be addressed, such as ensuring that children have access to health services to attend school ready to learn. I am convinced that we all have talents that we can share to help others along their path.

I vividly recall my graduation, from Tougaloo College in the state of Mississippi, several years ago. This was during the Civil Rights movement, when Tougaloo College served as the venue for prominent activists and leaders of that time to ACT to change the social, political, and economic fabric of this nation. While this was only a few years ago, I recall having the eloquent and pioneer civil rights leader, public servant, and change agent Dr. Vernon Jordan, who admonished us to “go for it all” as he had been told to do so by his parents because many of us were from low income households and either first or second generation relatives to attend college. We all recognized that we were about to enter the world that waited for us to prove that we had the abilities to excel. I sincerely hope that something I say to you today will stick with you as the words of Dr. Jordan have stuck with me over these years.

If you take nothing else from my brief statement today, I encourage you to serve others to make health equity a reality.

While I have had the privileges to implement many programs in underserved communities, personally, I credit others who nurtured me, made sacrifices, and championed me into creating opportunities for my professional development. The spirit of community service was instilled in me at an early age in the disciplined and hopeful environment of the delta of Mississippi. In this environment, I was fortunate enough to have guidance, coaching, and role modeling that included family members, friends of the family, neighbors, and many of my instructors. In other words, my personal village!

We are blessed to live in a country with plenty of resources; yet far too many of our fellow citizens experience injustices daily.

While higher education institutions have both education and research missions, these same institutions also have social missions that include accepting responsibilities for promoting equity in our society, which includes health.

According to a colleague, Dr. Fritzhuge Mullan, the social mission in medical institutions includes: mainstreaming diversity, assessing graduates’ career development, advancing access to medical care, and raising awareness of health disparities. This translates to “reaching out” to the community to align institutional resources with community needs and “reaching in” to promote diversity within our universities.

Over 40 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader committed to peace, justice, and equality stated, “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” Yet, health inequality continues to prevail as the most persistent public health challenge for our Nation.

Dr. David R. Williams, a sociologist at Harvard School of Public Health, recently started that if you could imagine having 265 persons dying daily in an airplane crash, that is the magnitude of health disparities in this country. What makes this more tragic is that there is no public outcry or mobilization to eradicate the disparities.

Unfortunately, the zip code, where we live, serve, and work, had a greater influence on our health than our individual genetic code.

Today, I would like to recommend that the graduates serve other to make health equity a reality.

To further frame this issue, let’s first define what is health equity?

Health equity is achieving optimal levels of health for all people, which requires focuses societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities by equalizing conditions of health for all, especially for those who have experienced socioeconomic disadvantage or historical injustices (Virginia Department of Health, 2009).

In fact, poor health status has paralleled the patterns of poverty for many years. As a nation, although we can claim numerous advances and improvements in comparison to other developed countries, we are not in good health.

You should consider the following seven facts when it comes to creating health equity.

First: The United States has, by far, the most inequality of all of the industrialized nations, and the worst health status. Economic inequality in the U.S. is now greater than at any time since the 1920s. Even when access to care is equal, racial and ethnic populations tend to receive less quality of care. Thus, inequalities are bad for our health.

Second: We all pay the price for poor health. Our health care system is strained to its breaking point such that health care spending is around 18% of the GNP. Yet, when it comes to return on investment for our life expectancy, we rank 29th in the world; for infant mortality, we rank 30th. In this nation and on a global level, the age-adjusted death rates for some racial/ethnic populations have been higher for several decades, resulting from many of the serious health disparities. In fact, lost productivity due to illnesses cost businesses more than $1 trillion each year.

Third: High demand + low control = chronic stress. Therefore, the less access we have to resources, power, knowledge, and social connections that can help us cope and gain control over forces that we encounter, the poorer health outcomes we have.

Fourth: Equitable health care ensures optimal outcomes for all persons regardless of their background or circumstances. Equitable health care treating every person the same. A successful equitable health system blends quality coordinated health care services and community conditions, merging efficient, accessible, and culturally-appropriate care with comprehensive efforts to prevent illness and injuries in the first place.

Fifth: Racism and discriminatory practices impose an added health burden. Segregation, social exclusion, encounters with prejudice, the degree of hope and optimism that people experience, as well as having differential access and treatment by the health care system – all of these can impact health.

Sixth: Choices we make are shaped by choices we have. Some neighborhoods have easy access to fresh, affordable produce; others have only fast food restaurants, and liquor and convenience stores. Some have nice homes, clean parks, safe places to walk, jog, bike, or play, and well-financed schools; while others don’t have those options. The health manifestation of not having those healthy choices includes higher obesity rates, which have doubled in adults and children since the 1970s (National Center for Health Statistics, 2009). Recent estimates suggest that the overall rates of obesity are widespread and continue to be a leading public health issue (Flegal, et al., 2012; Ogden, et al., 2012).

Seventh: Health is more than medical care. Research shows that social conditions, such as the jobs we do, the money we’re paid, the schools we attend, the neighborhoods we live in, are as important to our health as our genes, our behaviors, and even our medical care. Thus, having access to insurance coverage, providers, and hospitals does not necessarily ensure high quality care. In other words, access to healthcare [does not always equal] quality healthcare.

As a society, we face the choice to either invest in conditions that can improve health today or to pay to repair the bodies and lives tomorrow.

Recent evidence suggests that narrowing and/or eliminating health disparities is absolutely possible, however, this will require public awareness and understanding of which populations are most vulnerable, as well as research to determine which disparities are most correctable through community-participatory partnerships and interventions.

Health equity can be accomplished if we engage strategies that include both health and social interventions, and more broadly, access to economic, educational, employment, and housing opportunities.

Therefore, in keeping with the Franciscan tradition of all humankind being made in the divine image of God, I encourage you graduates, to dedicate a component of your careers and actions to doing your part to ensure health equity for all that will result in the transformation of lives and communities.

Remember, where we live, learn, work, and play has a greater impact on how long and how well we live than medical care.

Optimistically, this is a time for us to create solutions for the health crisis we find ourselves facing, and yes, that should include serving others to make health equity a reality.

Therefore, improving America’s health requires leadership from every sector of society including public, private, and nonprofit sectors, with people working in education, community planning, businesses, transportation, and yes, health care.

To Cardinal Stritch University, I challenge you to follow the advice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Continue to build youth for the future, as we cannot always build the future for our youth.”

To the graduating class of 2012, I charge each of you to actively live the founding values of Cardinal Stritch University to create a caring community by respecting each person’s dignity, show compassion by offering unselfish service, reverence all of creation by working for justice, and make peace by promoting non-violence.

Do whatever you can to make our society more equitable for all as you serve others to make health equity a reality.

Thank you for this extreme honor to share this special occasion with you as you continue on your path toward creating a healthier society.

My best wishes to you and much prosperity in your future.

Good luck, Class of 2012. God blessings to all!