Alumni Network: Turning Points

Turning Points

A veteran public health leader helps build a new Detroit.

As a young LPN, Vernice Davis Anthony moved to Detroit from Philadelphia in 1965 to attend Wayne State University’s nursing school. Two years later, in July 1967, riots broke out across Detroit, and officials imposed a citywide curfew. Davis Anthony had to have a special ID to get to her job at Children’s Hospital. Her daily commute, on foot and by bus, took her past army tanks with soldiers peering out of the tops.

It was, she remembers, a turning point—“both in my own life and certainly for the city.”

A half-century later, Detroit is again at a turning point, and Davis Anthony, RN, MPH ’76, has been there to witness—and participate in—the change. As the immediate past director of the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, a post she held from 2012 until her retirement this past February, Davis Anthony oversaw a massive departmental reorganization, one that coincided with the city’s emergence from bankruptcy proceedings.

“I’m really positive,” she says today. “The bankruptcy allowed the city to release the burden of debt. Now it’s up to the people that live here, the investors, the business community, to get involved and work with the mayor and city council to improve our city to better serve its citizens. There’s a lot of support and belief in the new leadership.”

She adds, “What the bankruptcy did not allow the city to do is to actually restructure the city so it’s functioning well, and that’s going to be difficult, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The department she led is a part of that restructuring. The Department of Health and Wellness Promotion now reports to the Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods, and its previously centralized activities are being distributed through community-based organizations. Both changes are in support of Detroit’s new city charter, passed in 2012, which places greater emphasis on the city’s seven distinct districts.

“By identifying and addressing health needs in each unique community,” Davis Anthony says, “public health strategies can be more relevant and focused, with a greater likelihood of producing better outcomes.”

Additionally, the department is contracting with specialized community agencies to carry out its mission in areas like maternal and child health and infectious diseases. Wayne State University School of Medicine, for instance, now handles communicable-disease testing for Detroit—a change that “took us leaps and bounds,” Davis Anthony says. “They already have the infrastructure and staff, so it leads to a much more effective and coordinated effort.”

A past director of the Michigan Department of Public Health, assistant county executive with Wayne County, director of public health nursing for the city of Detroit, and CEO of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council, Davis Anthony says that besides her three grandchildren, she is proudest “of being able to make a real sustainable difference in every step of my career.”

Her advice to future public health leaders? “Stay true to your public health values—that all people deserve to be healthy and to live in healthy communities. Contribute your expertise and leadership in ways that improve lives, especially the most vulnerable and those likely to be underserved. Mentor others, and always strive to make a positive difference.”

Portrait photo by Rebecca Minch