Hello I'm Dr. Vanessa Walker-Harris. I serve as deputy secretary of health and human resources for the commonwealth which means I provide support to Virginia state medicaid, our department of behavioral health and developmental services, and the department of health, and really focus on ensuring there's equitable access to high quality care for all Virginians and in particular our vulnerable Virginians who might be low-income, elderly, or disabled. I'm a public health leader and practitioner and I'm clinically trained in endocrinology and internal medicine.
I came to medicine on a bit of a winding road and that I'd always been interested in science and math and so decided to pursue a chemistry major at Hampton University and from there thought I would become a phd researcher in pharmacology and helped to design medications for various medical conditions. When I went to through the phd interview process I received consistent feedback that I should consider a medical degree since uh my responses and essays really focused a lot on working with people, and so I paused and shifted a bit and instead of pursuing a phd, I went to medical school.
From there trained in inter internal medicine and then endocrinology which I'd been interested in since about the second year of medical school. I did clinical practice and endocrinology for a bit and then had the opportunity to explore a long-held interest in public health at the Maryland department of health, where I served as a medical director overseeing chronic disease prevention program development and implementation.
Transitioning to Virginia as a public health practitioner has been a tremendous experience. Serving at the Virginia department of health overseeing chronic disease prevention programs, injury and violence, maternal health and data surveillance, has been a great opportunity to continue to grow and learn as a public health practitioner, and I've received really quite helpful mentorship and guidance from peers and my supervisors and just the public health community department of health and across state agencies, so it's been a really great experience to be a public health practitioner here in Virginia.
My road to centering equity and being a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion really started when I was a kid. My father and other family members have always been very civically engaged either by working the polls during elections, you know getting out the vote and knocking doors to register folks to vote, and my father in particular you know took us along with him to march against Apartheid when I was growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, and made sure we were exposed to opportunities to meet civil rights leaders and really understand the importance of that work and the move towards justice and freedom for us all. And so that has continued and I have the honor and privilege of being able to champion those... champion those efforts in in my day-to-day uh by making sure there's equitable access to high quality health care for all Virginians.
Out of all the work that I have done I would say my current involvement in Virginia's COVID response might be the the most world-changing and that is truly as has been said by by others is a once in one hundred year event and has provided opportunity to really center equity, given the disproportionate impact that COVID had on black and brown communities, and so it's helped us again to get crystal clear on centering you know equitable access to not just health care, but those wrap around supports that make our communities and families healthy, so food, transportation, housing, all of those social needs are social determinants of health, and so we've done that for Virginia state medicaid through our behavioral health services and thinking creatively and innovatively with the flexibilities provided by the federal government about how to reach folks and provide services even during this pandemic, and then which of those temporary flexibilities we should really move to make permanent because they're good policy and are really helping folks to access critically needed care.
And then just in engaging with the department of health in the nuts and bolts of the COVID response it's been quite an humbling and experience and one of deep privilege to help and support our testing strategies and implementation, the mitigation and containment, and now our vaccine rollout where again equity is such a large component of how we think through operationalizing each of these aspects of the response.
As a champion for DEI work I would offer to folks in healthcare who are engaged in the thick of this work, or who are allies and accomplices, to keep learning and stay encouraged and then to speak up. I think the work of equity is a journey and there's some you know definite critical policy and systems and environmental changes that we're seeking, which might be you know those particular outcomes, but it requires you know staying open to learning so that we can identify best practices and implement those and then share them broadly.
And then stay encouraged because it is a long game as opposed to a short one, where we may have to keep trying and keep pushing forward until the change that we're seeking is actually realized. And then as far as speaking up I've been leaning into a quote by Audrey Lourde who paraphrasing says you know when we speak we're afraid that our words will not be well received but when we are silent we are still afraid so it is better to speak.
So I just encourage folks when you see opportunity to make a change that advances equity speak up and would extend that to acting as well like do what you can do to influence others or to make change directly in your sphere of influence that advances the work of equity. Thank you.