Gen Z: The emerging champions of community healthcare

image of masked health care worker looking out of a window

By Tashfia Jilu

Master’s Student, Health Behavior and Health Education

The most prominent leaders of social movements in the United States had lived experiences that drove their passion to lead our society to change. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. lived through the Civil Rights Era as Black men. Marsha P. Johnson was a Black, transgender woman advocating for gay rights. Hundreds of other historical figures have had personal ties to the movements they were fighting for. 

Similarly, Community Health Centers (CHCs) arose in the U.S. as a response to individuals wanting a more accessible healthcare system for themselves and their communities. As the original founders and leaders of community health centers begin to look for their successors, one question seems to be common: Does Generation Z, those born in the late 1990s to early 2010s, possess the fervor to drive change just as tenaciously as their predecessors?

The crux of community healthcare's future rests upon the shoulders of the next generation of public health professionals. CHCs are vital, offering holistic, patient-focused care irrespective of financial status in a nation where over 27 million people do not have health insurance. These hubs of wellness are pivotal for sustaining the vitality of America's underserved.

Contrary to common skepticism, Gen Z rises as a hopeful answer to the question of continuity and commitment. This cohort, often misjudged as tender by elders, has demonstrated intellectual flexibility, an expansive worldview, and an inherent sense of justice—traits essential for stewarding the mission of community health into the future.

While pioneers in the space grew amidst the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty, Gen Z has carved its path through the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital revolution, and an exposure to global calamities right on their phones. Their unique experiences have sculpted a generation ripe with empathy and an eagerness for advocacy, irrespective of their proximity to the issues at hand. The broad-mindedness of Gen Z is a beacon of hope for CHCs seeking diligent successors. Pew Research Center findings and the insights of scholar Roberta Katz from Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) both underscore Gen Z's alignment with the tenets of diversity, collaboration, and non-hierarchical leadership that underpin the community health movement. Katz characterizes Gen Z as pragmatic realists—innate self-starters passionate about fostering inclusive communities and tackling inherited challenges.

To harness this potential, community health leaders must reach out and engage with Gen Z where they are—on digital platforms. They must offer roles in youth advisory, volunteerism, mentorship, and leadership development that resonate with the values and digital fluency of the younger generation. Building upon feminist scholar Carol Hanisch's adage, "The Personal is Political," the politically charged realms of today derive from shared experiences as much as personal ones. Gen Z recognizes that bringing about lasting social reform requires lifting burdens from marginalized sectors, advocating through a lens of collective struggles rather than isolated ones.

As we face the realities of a healthcare system deeply intertwined with CHCs, Gen Z stands ready to inherit the mantle of change. The leaders who forged pathways of equal access to healthcare have reason to be hopeful, not skeptical. Gen Z, with its digital savvy and drive for inclusivity, is well-positioned to embrace the influence of CHCs. If current leaders show us to the path, Gen Z will pick up the torch to light the way.

About The Author 

Tashfia Jilu headshotTashfia Jilu is a second year Master of Public Health student in Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, as well as a Master of Social Work student in Policy and Political Social Work at the University of Michigan School of Social work. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biology and Science in Society from Wesleyan University. She plans to connect her interest in biological studies with public health and social work to bridge the gap between medicine and voiceless communities.