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.
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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!