Working in the Field to Reduce Health Disparities and Strengthen Health Equity

Headshot of Janae Best in a black suit

Janae Best

Master’s Student in Health Behavior and Health Education

Since she arrived at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Janae Best has helped develop social media activism curriculum, become an active student ambassador, and has deepened her knowledge on social determinants of health and race.

Now in her second year of her Master of Public Health program in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, she can clearly connect the dots on how public health became her passion and research focus.

While attending Spelman College, a historically black all-women's college, Janae examined how social determinants are patterned by systematic discrimination and racism to impact the health of black Americans. “I became aware of the many narratives that are told about black communities, which led to my interest in examining health of black communities beyond a deficit perspective and considering the resiliency and coping mechanisms that have sustained them,” says Janae.

Communities should be treated as stakeholders in their own health.

More specifically, Best is interested in community health and the ways in which social determinants of health such as race impact health outcomes. “Community health allows public health practitioners to assist communities that need help in moving forward toward healthfulness,” she says. Michigan Public Health’s strong commitment to translational work and public health practice was a key attribute for her to pursue a Master of Public Health degree at the school. “I really value that faculty members use a community-based, participatory action research approach because it provides opportunities to engage communities as stakeholders in the development and implementation of real public health solutions,” Janae adds. “Communities should be treated as stakeholders in their own health.”

Coming to the University of Michigan School of Public Health also meant working with faculty that focus specifically on her interest in reducing health disparities. “I saw faculty members such as Dr. Cleopatra Caldwell and was drawn to the school because I knew that I had the opportunity to learn from people that are at the forefront of health equity work. Additionally, I became aware of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health (CRECH) within the School of Public Health and saw a potential opportunity to work as a student research assistant.”

Janae currently works within CRECH as a member of the Fathers and Sons research team, where they utilize a community-based, participatory research approach to assess relationships among non-resident black fathers and sons in Flint, Michigan. Under Caldwell's leadership, the Fathers and Sons program fosters empowerment and aims to decrease the likelihood of engagement in risky behaviors by adolescent sons through intervention sessions addressing sexual health, racial socialization, racial identity, and family relationship dynamics. As a programmatic research assistant, Janae has drafted intervention materials, developed evaluation surveys, and assisted with research proposal development. 

Additionally, CRECH uses a youth participatory action research model to conduct research in Flint with black adolescents impacted by the Flint Water Crisis. Using a social media activism curriculum—which Best created—she led workshop sessions with youth to introduce social media platforms as tools for igniting social change. The goal of these workshops was to empower youth to use their voices to speak on how racism led to the water crisis and continues to impact their community today. “Through this experience I was able to strengthen my facilitation skills and assist in intervention development and implementation. These experiences, along with my academic coursework, further deepened my commitment to public health community work,” she says.

When Janae isn’t at her classes or working as a student research assistant for both CRECH and a PhD student in her department, she participates in several extracurricular activities, including acting as an active member of public service sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, as well as Public Health Students of African Descent (PHSAD) at Michigan Public Health. This past summer, she interned for almost three months in Kumasi, Ghana, with the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program, where she conducted research with low birth weight babies. For the past two years, Janae has also served as a School of Public Health Student Ambassador, where she attends recruitment fairs, participates in webinars for prospective students, and engages with prospective students on social media. 

It's important that the demographics of communities that we aim to serve are well represented as practitioners in the field of public health.

“Becoming a student ambassador was extremely important to me because I value representation. In order to increase diversity within Michigan Public Health, it’s helpful for prospective students of color to be able to engage with individuals that look like them,” Janae says. “Also, in moving toward health equity and increasing cultural competence in public health, it is important that the demographics of communities that we aim to serve are well represented as practitioners in the field of public health.”

So what’s next for Janae? After graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in Community Health or Health Behavior and Health Education to further research the ways that racism impacts health for Black Americans. “I am particularly interested in investigating the impact of racism and discrimination on HIV/AIDS outcomes and mental health outcomes such as, anxiety and depression,” she says. 

Through translational disparity research and culturally competent prevention strategies, Janae aims to implement relevant programs in communities that reduce the barriers to healthfulness faced by vulnerable populations. “I hope to one day work in academia as a professor and principal investigator in a sexual health research lab and use my findings to develop intervention programs,” says Janae.