Podcast: Public Health & Equity in Lawrence, KS with Dr. Farris Muhammad & Ruaa Hassaballa

Posted on February 19, 2021

Farris Muhammad and Ruaa Hassaballa - GovLove
Dr. Farris Muhammad
Director of Equity and Inclusion
City of Lawrence, KS
Ruaa Hassaballa
COIVD Testing Equity Project Manager
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Maintaining equity during a pandemic. Two guests joined the podcast to talk about how they promote equity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Farris Muhammad, Director of Equity and Inclusion for the City of Lawrence, Kansas, and Ruaa Hassaballa, COVID Testing Equity Project Manager for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, shared how the partnership between the City and Public Health Department has helped promote equity in testing and vaccine distribution. They also discussed other equity and inclusion efforts and how Dr. Muhammad has worked to start a equity and inclusion program in Lawrence.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Episode Transcription

Ben Kittelson  00:00

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Dr. Farris Muhammad  02:09

Thank you very much, I’m happy to be here.

Ruaa Hassaballa  02:11

Thanks for having us. Great to speak with you today.

Ben Kittelson  02:16

All right, so we have a tradition on Gov Love to do a lightning round to let our listeners get to know the guests a little a little better. So Ruaa, we can start with you. What book are you reading?

Ruaa Hassaballa  02:28

Currently, I’m reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, you know, and, and you know, describing racism in the US as an aspect of a caste system. And so that’s what I’ve been reading currently.

Ben Kittelson  02:41

Nice. Yeah, I read her first book, but I need to put Caste on my list. 

Ruaa Hassaballa  02:45

Yeah, it’s a good one.

Ben Kittelson  02:47

Dr. Farris, what about you? What are you reading?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  02:49

I’m currently finishing up a book by James Baldwin the Fire Next Time and he kind of kind of a sort of a bio about his kind of upbringing and kind of what led him to being kind of an activist and revolutionary during that period of time and those types of things. In addition to that, I’m also in the process of reading a book, I forget the name of the author, but it’s called Superior Man, just kind of looking at, you know, the balancing act that most men should embark upon, as relates to balancing work life, professional life, love life and those types of things.

Ben Kittelson  03:21

Very cool. I read recently, is it Begin Again? By, I think it’s Eddie Glaude, who wrote, it was like a biography intellectual history of Baldwin, which has made me want to want to read some of his his books.

Dr. Farris Muhammad  03:36

Yeah, definitely a powerful individual.

Ben Kittelson  03:38

Yeah. Awesome. So, Dr Farris, we’ll make you go first on this one. Are you, in our time of a quarantining and not being able to go out into the public very much, are you watching or binge watching any TV right now?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  03:51

You know, actually, I kind of finished, I’m not normally a television type of person. But recently I have been watching the was the third season, second season of Cobra Kai. It’s a television show built off of The Karate Kid, which I am shockingly very engaged with.

Ben Kittelson  04:08

Awesome. Awesome. Ruaa, what about you?

Ruaa Hassaballa  04:11

Actually not watching or bingeing any TV right now. You know, just been with work and just, you know, with my free time, spending it with family or outdoors. So yeah, not really binge binge watching any TV right now.

Ben Kittelson  04:27

That’s fair. I mean, you are a student too. So I’m sure you’re doing plenty of other things. Awesome. All right. So our last lightning round question. Ruaa, why don’t we make you go first this time? Where do you go for inspiration?

Ruaa Hassaballa  04:41

That’s a good question. I think just spending time outdoors, so there’s a park right behind me here. And just it’s a nice vast Park that’s just beautiful. And so just going for a walk I think is, serves as a source of inspiration for me. Seeing the green grass, the trees, just the being outside and that cool, crisp air, I think that’s a location for me that serves as inspiration.

Ben Kittelson  05:07

Awesome. Dr. Farris, what about you?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  05:11

You know, like I think of myself sort of a, as a student of life. So I try to get inspiration from everywhere, driving around looking at different things, listening to different podcasts, watching different television shows, such as the Cobra Kai. But I’ve often told like students, when I would do mentoring that I think that when it comes to inspiration and motivation, that you have to continuously kind of chase it and seek it. So for an example, you might watch a lecture or listen to a certain musical song, and you might be inspired. But that inspiration only lasts for a day or a week. Then after that runs its course you kind of have to find where’s my next dose of Inspiration going to come from? So I think I just kind of keep your head on a swivel. And have your kind of spirit open to being diagnosed, sort of speak with more motivation.

Ben Kittelson  06:01

Awesome, awesome. Cool. So I’m always curious when, when I when I talk to people for the podcast, like, I want to know about kind of their career path and into local government. And so I know you guys have each taken your your current roles fairly recently. But I’m curious about your career path. So Dr. Farris, why don’t we start with you? What’s, How did you end up kind of in your current position in local government?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  06:26

So long journey, um, I guess the, trying to be trying to, in my attempt to try to be as succinct as possible, I guess I’ll say just kind of bring up part of my upbringing, I’ve always been very curious about what does equity look like based on seeing various types of disparities displayed along racial lines. And so through a series of circumstances that led to me going to college and be in grad school, I did during my PhD or doctoral work, I started doing a lot of research surrounding the kind of environmental impacts on people in addition to like narrative inquiry as a methodology, which is designed to provide voice to marginalized populations of people. So you look throughout educational literature and things of that nature, you often see that there’s a, an absence, or there’s the voices of black people, for an example, are often invisible or not heard. And so that kind of made me want to farther figure out ways in which I can help elevate members of marginalized groups. So that led to me kind of doing work in this area. So I initially served as the executive director over a community center with a focus on culture that was designed to be able to kind of provide a safe space for members of the marginalized community throughout that city that I was working in, for local government. And then from there, as, as you mentioned, in the intro to this podcast, I then left and went to the city of Peoria where I served as the first Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer for that city. And there’s just so many different moving parts in local government that keeps me engaged. And I find the work to be exciting to be able to work with people from, say, a planning department, a human resource, legal department, fire, police, etc, etc, and recognize that in all these different areas, you can find disparities. So trying to help close that gap so that we can ensure there’s equal outcomes for all citizens is critically important. So that’s how I kind of started this work. And that’s those challenges and trying to find solutions to those have sustained me in this work.

Ben Kittelson  08:26

Very cool. And Ruaa, what about you? I know, I know, your your role is pretty new. But How’d you end up in your in your current role, and maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you’re studying as well.

Ruaa Hassaballa  08:36

For sure. So how I ended up here, so I was born in Sudan, and I came to the US when I was seven years old. And the two words I knew in English were bicycle and basketball. And so this was. And so this was, you know, my, my father came to study cultural anthropology in the 80s, at the University of Washington. So, you know, for me, it was just always being around communities. So in Sudan, moving from there to Seattle, was its own, you know, new kind of culture shock, but then I moved from Seattle to Kansas, you know, and so I have this perspective, and appreciation for people from different backgrounds, as well as the perspectives that they might bring. So I always knew that I was interested in health justice, and in looking at health as a human right. And I studied clinical laboratory sciences, and really enjoyed it, but felt like I enjoyed working with communities and kind of being out in the field. And so that led me to a study abroad program on the social determinants of health where I learned about the social gradient that no matter what country someone’s in their class or socioeconomic status directly impacts their health. And so I wanted to unpack that some more and so I went for my Master’s of Public Health and Epidemiology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and from there, I Learn about the behavioral psychology field. And so currently, my PhD program is in behavioral psychology with that focus in community health and development. And, you know, I worked as a graduate research assistant and part of it included collaborating on monitoring and evaluating the response to COVID. And that’s kind of what opened the door to work at the at the local health department that’s called Lawrence Douglas County Public Health. And currently, you know, it’s about looking at, at that piece of equity, and how do we increase access to testing for underserved populations. So for me, it’s a path of wanting to learn more and, and looking at health as a as a social justice issue. And so health justice, and finding ways to continue collaborating with communities in partnership, so what we do, and my training program is really about community based participatory research, which really is about connecting with communities from the beginning of the research effort from when you are planning all the way throughout and having to be engaged in that process. So I it’s for me, it’s all about just connecting with people and and having these shared experiences, but also an empowering communities to be agents of change. And so as part of that effort, I think another way that I’m connecting to government is that I am recently received an award to be a next gen global leader fellow with the US Global Leadership Coalition. And we start actually this Wednesday, training on how do we raise the next generation of voices and on topics related to international issues like climate change, and diplomacy, global health, so I’m interested to bring that Kansas perspective to this, this team of about 100 national fellows.

Ben Kittelson  11:54

Well, yeah, and this is obviously a super timely topic with, you know, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the testing that has been a vaccination rollout. And, and obviously, we’re seeing kind of across the country, the social determinants of health, having, you know, they’re pretty predictive, being pretty predictive of the impact that COVID is having on on different communities. But before we do, so, before we get into that, because I definitely talk a lot about kind of the pandemic and what that’s been like, for maybe our listeners that are less familiar with Lawrence or, you know, they only know of of it from watching Kansas basketball games, can you tell our listeners, maybe a little about the city, and, and if there are any kind of local nuances that like might impact this, the conversation about kind of equity and racial disparities.

Ruaa Hassaballa  12:41

So basically, what I can share to our listeners is that Lawrence is a diverse and multifaceted city, in that it provides that feeling of a large metropolitan area, but still maintaining that strong sense of community. So I think what makes it unique is that it offers this history and different cultural experiences. And what is unique about it is that it’s like a college town. So the University of Kansas, and, you know, serves as that location where you will have individuals that are coming to Lawrence to be students, right, so you have individuals traveling from different parts of the world to join this community in Lawrence. And so as far as you know, things when it comes to equity, it’s, it’s often described, as, you know, a more progressive than the rest of the state, you know, Lawrence itself. And what is unique about it is just the community organization, the different types of supports available to people, how people even came together with this pandemic, and making sure that individuals are supported to the best of their ability. And so, for me, Lawrence is also about 45 minutes west of Kansas City, and 30 minutes east of Topeka, that state capitol. And so individuals might be driving into KC and going back to Lawrence. And so that’s the kind of environment that it’s in. It has individuals who are there as families, but also a large population of individuals who are there for this certain amount of time while they’re at the University of Kansas or KU. So that’s what I can share a little bit about Lawrence.

Dr. Farris Muhammad  14:24

Yeah, and I guess I would add to that, she did a great job covering that, especially in describing kind of the proximity to Kansas City, which has a population of about nearly 500,000. And then Lawrence is like embarking upon a population of right around 100,000. But speaking with the planner for the city of Lawrence, he spoke to the fact that Lawrence is a very much a growing city for the mid sized size. And so about 0.9% or just under 1% annual growth rates we see here in the city of Lawrence. So right around 100,000 right now but also Topeka I think, is right around about a 125,000 as far as population goes, so just to give some listeners that kind of sense of what the size looks like, but as far as like a metropolitan area, it’s also important to know, like, she mentioned that you may get 20 minutes or so away from Topeka and about 45 minutes or so away from Kansas City, which of course, has an international airport. So you get all those extra amenities as far as living in the City of Lawrence. So I think is a great place in a very progressive place where I think a lot of the kind of anchor institutions and kind of stakeholders are really looking forward to kind of advancing equity and embarking upon this work, especially now more than ever it appears. So I’m personally I’m very excited to be here.

Ruaa Hassaballa  15:39

And I’d like to also add to that, and that when it comes to demographics, just to give a little bit more of that context, it’s about 79.8%, white, 4.9%, Black or African American, 2.7%, Native American or indigenous and 6.5% Asian alone. And also, we have Haskell University. And so we have a good population of individuals who are Native American or are indigenous. And so just wanted to kind of share a little bit more of that context.

Ben Kittelson  16:13

That’s helpful. So so I don’t know the best way to start the COVID-19 conversation, but the I mean, the response to the pandemic in Lawrence, what is maybe that been like, how has that gone? And then I’m curious, I don’t know, if there’s some context you want to set before he really talks about kind of the vaccination and testing rollout. But yeah, how is that gone in Lawrence?

Ruaa Hassaballa  16:38

I think that’s a great question. And I know from kind of being at the at the health department that what what it looked like is what we would call like a unified command structure. And so you have basically the stakeholders or individuals representing different geographical areas and organizations. And this includes the University of Kansas, Lawrence Douglas County Public Health, our our school district, as well as Lawrence Memorial Hospital. So what it looks like is this structure of different agencies that are all part of the response, this includes the city of Lawrence, Douglas County, of course, and individuals working together, I think what helps is that some of these relationships are already built before the pandemic. And so when this pandemic came, it was about how do we come together to work forward in this process, you know, and especially during a challenging time, like this pandemic, where there’s lots of uncertainties and things are always changing. And so I think that structure has helped as far as individual partnerships and organizational partnerships, and moving forward, but of course, there are challenges, right, related to, you know, individuals wanting to go by guidelines that are public health guidelines, and, you know, some of that kind of pushback. So, I think what their response has been, and Douglas County is one of like, united or like these different organizations united together to respond. And so it’s been a learning opportunity, and in a way to continue to see how we can improve, especially now that we are having the chance to say, Okay, how can we look at making things more equitable? And so it’s always a learning opportunity to continue to improve upon these different strategies. But it’s been good to be able to have, for example, expansion of testing, to have an equity team that serves on the unified command to have, you know, now a community well being branch. So there are individuals who care in our community and are coming together to respond.

Ben Kittelson  18:47

What, kind of on that note, was there like equity work already being done in the public health department that, you know, as they’re responding to COVID, they can, you know, tap people and kind of, you know, bring that lens to this role. This, you know, this response in this rollout of vaccinations and testing, or was that something that, hey, they realized, you know, COVID has kind of exposed a lot of things that our society, but I think health disparity is definitely one of them. And, you know, it’s been fascinating to watch some of the coverage of like community to hospitals that were struggling before being just, you know, this, you know, in a world of hurt now. And so, I guess, so was that kind of already happening in the Lawrence Douglas Public Health Department, or was that something that, you know, once the, issue was kind of, you know, seen, that they had to kind of pivot and start to incorporate equity more? Yeah, go ahead.

Ruaa Hassaballa  19:36

Sorry. I think that’s a good question. And it was already being done. The thing is, you know, and that with these equity work, it’s about how do we have it be throughout you know, and so at the time, it was already, like I was able to, and I know this because I worked on some of the projects before joining the health department, so it included things like a health Equity initiative that was called and that was focused really on getting, identifying the barriers to employment in our county. And so this was in partnership with the Housing Authority, I worked with the community liaison that they had at the health department and her role. Christina Gentry is focused on equity and working with communities. There is also a health equity planner role. And so what we have are at the health department, equity is infused into the work, I think the pandemic definitely highlighted the urgency of equity work and the importance of expanding and looking to see how we can continue to serve individuals of all intersectional identities. And so there was some of that work already being laid out. And I think this pandemic just kind of pushed it forward. And I think it was the summer that the health department, you know, declared racism as a public health crisis. So, you know, we’re seeing with the pandemic, a more urgent look at equity. Although it was already there, and being worked on with several different projects,

Ben Kittelson  21:09

And like specifically with the vaccination, and the testing, kind of rollouts, like, what would have been like, I don’t know, some strategies that the health department has used to ensure that that is being done in an equitable way? Is there any like kind of lessons that that you might be able to share?

Ruaa Hassaballa  21:26

Yeah, I think lessons that help with things being more equitable include just hearing and having individuals be having a seat at the table, right. And so as I think about our testing, equity work that looks like partnering with local organizations, and having individuals within our community that are experiencing these different, that have these different lived experiences, that can be able to look at some forms that we might have and say, Well, what if we change this part? How can we ensure, you know, accessibility in our vaccine events? And how can we ensure that testing, for example, I’m looking at translating documents related to testing in different languages and having signage that would be able to be translated into different languages as well? So equity work really looks at what are the barriers that people are facing? Oh, is it transportation? Is it the fact that, you know, they if they get a positive test, it might be difficult to, you know, they won’t be going to work, they might lose some wages. So how can we mitigate that? And how can we address these challenges? So we’re looking at removing barriers, and in turn that helps make it more equitable, because we’re increasing opportunities for people and ensuring that they have a voice or a seat at the table. And so that’s always a you know, it’s about expanding to different partnerships, continuing to ask for questions and feedback and taking all of these things into consideration. And that’s not always easy with with rollouts, because they might be quick. And so how do we ensure that future ways that we’re approaching things are more equitable than they were yesterday?

Ben Kittelson  23:07

Yeah, making that progress each day. Dr Farris, what about at the city? What has kind of been, you know, your involvement with the COVID response or kind of the ways that the city has you know, thought about equity in kind of this, this pandemic era that we’re in?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  23:24

Yeah, so kind of building on some of the things that Ruaa spoke to, one the city as part of that unified command structure to where I was trying to contribute, since we think in terms of like, for example, the county here, Douglas County, which Lawrence sits within the city of Lawrence is about 90%, of the population of Douglas County. So as a large portion of making sure that things go smoothly throughout this area or throughout this region. So internally by the city, the city has embarked upon several things, of course, all the regular CDC guidelines and testing and temperature checks and sanitizer and giving away kind of a sanitizer, the COVID-19 kind of kits and packs over the holidays for all employees and things of that nature. But right now is a strong conversation surrounding even like the vaccine or vaccinations and kind of developing strategy to see how do we ensure that most of our employees are able to be vaccinated in a structured kind of a way so you can kind of reach that herd immunity to make sure that employees and are safe but also community members are safe. So the City, as part of that unified command structure. Also, internally, we have a an incident action plan team, where we internally and equity is at the top of that right with a unified commander to make sure that we nail all those different components especially for our larger departments such as our MSO, which might be more commonly referred to as like a public works department in other municipalities. So police and fire departments, our MSO department, our parks and recreation, some of our larger departments, making sure that you know when we bring on employees or what that looks like the City is doing taking a lot of different action steps. Our, what is the title called, our risk assessment analysis is kind of leading that charge to continuously in contact with the health department to see, you know, which phase are we at as far as rollout and you know what type of dosages are left over. So we can ensure that employees are able to as efficiently and as effectively as quickly as possible to be able to get vaccinated and schedule those appointments. So it’s a lot of continuous focus. Majority of all of our employees are pretty much working remotely, at least for those who have that kind of an option. So yeah, so being taken very, very serious, lots of actions in that regard. So we’re trying to make sure that from an equity standpoint, I know in a recent conversation I just had based on a lot of the national articles that have been floating around throughout the social media world and etc, about the disparities that we see existing right now in testing, thinking in terms of the city since we have about a population or employee workforce, about 850 or so people. So for me is just trying to be mindful of our city being sort of as an organization being sort of a microcosm of a macrocosm. It’s like, we look at the snapshot of the makeup of our workforce based on racial demographic, and gender, etc. What does vaccinations look like for our employees and how we’re reflective of that is how reflective is our organization as far as that makeup in parallel to our society or our area, as far as those kind of numbers and percentages of who’s being tested and why or why not, while also just being mindful of different people’s reason and rationale, especially our racial minorities, because we can’t act as if we’re oblivious to the history history of this country and our kind of healthcare system that has created and caused many black people to proceed with caution or have some type of trepidation or skepticism from testing. So it’s just being mindful of those things, and how do we work through some of those kind of barriers based on the history of race and racism and healthcare in our society and in government? So trying to figure out, you know, for those who may lack resources to education that can help demystify some of the stereotypes and things that might be out there that causes him to hesitate with testing. So try to see from an equity lens, how do we kind of focus in on that and at least for those who desire to get tested, how do we make sure that they have as easy access as possible?

Ben Kittelson  27:23

Yeah, that’s on, kind of on that note, what does that look like I guess from a, like, tactical strategy approach? Like if, you know, if you’re thinking of the city’s, you know, workforces as a microcosm of the population of the community, like, and, you know, you’re wanting to make sure that, you know, testing and vaccination rates are equitable, how are you? Are you meeting with different, you know, different divisions and departments to do more like hands on education for for folks that might be, you know, hesitant? Or what does that look like, I guess, is like a, you know, as as like a strategy to kind of ensure that, you know, there’s an equitable rollout of this.

Dr. Farris Muhammad  28:01

Yeah. So it’s funny, we just had a conversation about that last week. It’s a slippery slope, right? Because on one end, we kind of also make sure that we get away from the politics surrounding kind of vaccination. And overall, the pandemic, right, it has become this very much this kind of politically charged kind of a conversation to where it’s like, Okay, how do you just objectively display the facts, right? So one of the conversations that we just had is, okay, where are people, for those who have certain type of concerns and things of that nature, what is their source of information, right? What are they, what’s their source of information where they’re normally getting information from? And then what are those Trusted Sites and sources that they believe right? So if they prefer, for an example, let’s say the Mayo Clinic, or they prefer john hopkins, medical hospitals, or, you know, versus fox news or MSNBC, just trying to figure out, Okay, can I provide you some objective information to where it’s like this is not leaning one way or the other. But the idea that all we consider all we’re concerned really about is overall people’s health. Right. And so I know, for me, one of the things I recently did was also reached out to the human resource department to have a better as I’m encouraging to working with a human resource department and developing an affirmative action plan that allows for a better snapshot of our workforce among kind of race and gender lines and seeing who we are, what’s the demographics of the different departments and those in leadership and upper leadership? And just looking at that, in addition to looking at who are who are the people in leadership roles in different departments, and what kind of influence are they having and so, for an example, I know part of the conversation was and let’s say our fire department, our police department, for those who were a little bit concerned about getting vaccinated for one reason or the other. Some of them start to after reflecting on it, understand that they are in leadership roles, start to feel as if Hey, as a leader, maybe I should kind of take the charge here and lead by example. Many people in different leadership roles have agreed to go to get vaccinated. I know I received mine, like last week into the first round as far as vaccine vaccinations go. So it’s just trying to be mindful of who is in what departments? And how do you proceed with that without seeming like you’re specifically targeting people who already may feel like they’re targeted, you know, based on history, but it is a delicate balance. It’s a nice dance.

Ben Kittelson  30:32

Yeah. Yeah. Imagine, well, and really like for the public health department, kind of, like your experience in your, you know, your role specifically, like, what’s the balance of like doing education and kind of outreach to to ensure everybody or, and to ensure folks that might otherwise not have access or, you know, be, you know, be excluded, like, have the, you know, the education, the resources, they need to, like, get the testing and vaccination? How much of it is, you know, that communications and education peice versus, you know, nuts and bolts like access, like, you know, partnering with healthcare providers? Like, what’s that a balance there?

Ruaa Hassaballa  31:08

Yes, that I see it as both. So the patient peice is so key. And because it is what leads to trust. So you know, as Dr. Farris said, these systemic or historical injustices, they’re not easily just, you know, wiped away, right? So part of building that trust, is providing the needed information about what this testing might mean, right. So why we are testing that, you know, what it means if they test positive or negative, and what support they might have if they test positive. So as part of partnering with organizations, or healthcare providers and things like that, the education piece comes with it. And I’d like to have it be done before any event happens, right? So say that we, we are launching something or an initiative. So making sure that individuals have the information that they need about how long it would take for them until they get their test results, where they can get tested, you know, what accommodations there might be for that. And so the education piece and providing information is so so key, and it is what helps everything else work. And, and part of that is just about building trust, and providing that transparency, to say, here’s what you can expect, because I think that hesitation comes from, you know, do I do I have everything I need? And am I getting the right information? And what does this mean for me. And so I think just being transparent, and letting people know, is so key. And that’s, that’s letting them know, in their own language. And, you know, even from a discussion I had, this last week that even language goes beyond just the different types of languages like Arabic or, you know, Spanish, but also inclusive language. So, you know, that’s something that we are definitely looking into, and, and making adjustments as we work with our community to really, you know, have that collaborative partnership with them.

Dr. Farris Muhammad  33:11

And if I can expound upon that a bit farther, I think Ruaa spoke to a very critical piece of the communication. And that going beyond just the language itself, such as Arabic or English or Spanish, but also the kind of the equity and literacy in the communication, and also ensuring that communication is bidirectional. Right. So meaning that we’re not just trying to inundate people with a bunch of podcasts or videos or website information, but also trying to see, okay, how do we gather feedback from citizens and try to get a sense of what are their concerns? And how do we make sure that we connect trusted people with various parts of our community to where they have that trusting relationship? So when they are disseminating information they can understand this is this coming from a reliable source and not just some people in ivory towers, and this is we know best what’s for people. So it kind of goes to that whole adage of do nothing for me without me, right? So how do you make sure that you’re bringing certain people to the table? Yeah, how do you bring certain people to the table to where you understand that their voices also value in his process. So it’s not just us as a bunch of experts saying what’s best for you. But some of that knowledge can be kind of Co-constructed to say, okay, we have the better understanding of the vaccination process in healthcare, but we might not have such the best understanding of the community. Right. And if we’re trying to ensure that as a collective, that all of our communities are better off, we have to bring everybody to the table and kind of have those discussions. And in addition to that, one of the things I’m often pushing for, and I think, again, the health department does a great job with this is not just speaking about the issue, the challenges and barriers as relates to this process of vaccination, but also how do you kind of infuse that equity piece into the literacy to where you can ensure that no matter who it is throughout the community and their level of education, Their SES or socio-economic status, that even if they have a fourth grade education, that the information that is being disseminated, it’s understandable and digestible to where people can understand it, it doesn’t seem as if using a bunch of fancy words to kind of confuse people or not give them the actual truth that they desire to have, so they can make the best decision possible for them and their families.

Ben Kittelson  35:25

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Dr. Farris Muhammad  36:59

Yeah, so it really does require innovative approaches, right? So for me, once I’d found a new location, a new place, one of the things that I’m most passionate about is connecting with people, right? They’re real people, day to day people, regardless of their professional background, and all those kinds of things. So in the course of this kind of pandemic related state that we’re in, that complicates things to some degree. But nevertheless, I find myself do having lots and lots of meetings through zoom. And one of the things I spoke about before taking this position or agreeing to take this position is that in the city was very accommodating for this point is that, hey, listen, I essentially, I’ll need a period of time to kind of be able to connect with people and kind of go on listening tours and get a better assessment and snapshot of what are some of the challenges here in this community. So I can kind of develop sort of a needs based assessment, right? And try to figure out also, how do I develop an Equity Toolkit or equity assessment of what’s transpiring in this kind of a region. So I’ve been meeting with lots and lots of people to the point where my emails are just flooded, and I feel guilty that I can’t get through my emails. And I think there’s kind of a virtual world, it’s this kind of dichotomy or one in, it sort of hinders your ability to connect with people in a very organic way. But it also allows for you to be able to connect with people more frequently. So one of the things I find myself and I have to do a better job with this is kind of having meetings back to back because there’s no travel time now. Right? You know, you give yourself 15-20 minutes to get from one part of town to the other. But now it’s like back to back meetings, a lot of times I don’t get chance to take breaks in between. But since I’m in a new area, I really appreciate being able to, people making themselves available to connect with me. And that they understand that, okay, he genuinely wants to hear from people, not just people with titles or a certain positions or part of certain anchor institutions. But wherever people are at, I think I’m a large, as described in great part to the concept of a collective impact model, right, in a very organic way. So as far as I’m a firm believer that not one entity can really solve some of the complex problems that we’re facing as a society, right, you have to sort of have that interdisciplinary approach. So whether that’s including the faith based community, the business community, nonprofit, local government, county, government, health department, its School District, etc, etc. You have to kind of all of us have to sort of work together to figure out how do we improve our community and do so through an equity lens?

Ben Kittelson  39:35

And what about the health bar? Because I know like one, you know, similar with the the partnerships question, like, you know, that there are for hospital systems that you know, need to make a, you know, money or make a make ends meet, you know, some of the public health measures aren’t, don’t pay as well, especially for, you know, maybe communities that are traditionally underserved. You know, so you know, Health and Health Insurance may not be as high or insurance rates may not be as high and that, you know, affects the bottom lines of some health system. So was it like kind of that like, you know, partnership aspect of for the health department? Because, you know, obviously there’s an equity component to that. But I guess what’s your kind of your perspective on that?

Ruaa Hassaballa  40:17

Yeah, that’s a great question. For me, when I joined on, it was because of a grant that was specifically for testing equity, right? And so there are structures in place to help support this work. But being a project manager for, for an initiative that’s focused specifically on equity, I think has provided more opportunities to expand and to reach underserved populations. And so just like Dr. Farris, I agree that it is about all these different agencies coming together. And so it has been about building off of existing relationships, as well as creating new ones so some that I could just list off – our sunrise project, the community based organization that has a community garden, as well as meals weekly, and they are a location that we feel can be really great to have testing available in case people need it, there is Sanctuary Alliance and Lawrence Mutual Aid Network. And they actually were a group created during the pandemic to respond to community’s needs. So if someone needed a medication, but couldn’t leave the house, one of their volunteers would go do that, and, and any assistance with rent or utilities. So we are partnering with them to be able to one reach individuals that might not have internet access, who want to, for example, fill out their interest form for vaccinations or who want to get a test and see what their results might be. And so it’s been really good to be able to build off of these different relationships and also connecting with different groups. For example, people who advocate are working in agencies related to people with disabilities. So how can we work together with them to ensure that there is equity in testing, and that also includes connecting with the community shelter, so they have, they have tests available in a program that’s running. And so part of my role is, that’s also kind of unique is that, I co lead surveillance testing. And so I’m able to infuse equity into our testing approach in the county. And that also includes partnering with the Lawrence Restaurant Association. So currently monthly, about 40 hospitality businesses, or 1200 employees are getting tested monthly. And so this is, you know, this has helped catch some folks who are asymptomatic that didn’t know they had COVID, but turned out to be positive, so they could be quarantined, and keep our community safe. So really just partnering with people and schools in all these different areas to just ensure that we are keeping people safe, because we know this pandemic is spreading not just amongst symptomatic people, but also asymptomatic people and, and folks who might not even know that they have COVID. So it’s been really helpful to have these partnerships.

Dr. Farris Muhammad  43:04

And if I, one thing to say one more thing to that point, to people’s inability to be able to receive certain levels of health care based on their financial status or socio economic status, Ruaa, if you can give a shout out or let people know where they can find that recent panel that you were on, because Ruaa was recently on a panel with a few other individuals from our community. And they were able to kind of have a town hall meeting and explain to people. One of the key critical takeaways for me that I thought would be very impressive is how they really harped on his idea that when you go to any of the vaccination locations, that no one will be turned away, right, regardless of their economic background and those types of things. And to see over 200 or so people on this town hall from different walks of life and lots of elderly people was on the zoom call. And again, I know there’s a barrier with technology there, a lot of times for certain populations of a certain age group. So to see so many people who appear to be elderly, on this call receiving this information that was being disseminated from Ruaa and the other panelists, I thought was very powerful. In addition to that, to see the population of black people on that call is very also impressive. And I enjoyed that very much, and the information that was disseminated was very pedestrian in nature or kind of sort of elementary, so people were able to easily digest that information. And so I just think it could be great if some of the listeners to this podcast may want to view that and figure out is that could be a best practice or a model for other communities that they can roll out as far as having townhall meetings and getting that information out to the masses in always possible. So if you can just share the information about that I think it’d be helpful.

Ruaa Hassaballa  44:40

For sure. Thank you Dr. Farris and I can also send you this link Ben and it is located on our Facebook page, Lawrence Douglas County Public Health, on that is where this recording was put was placed. And so yes, it was you know, it was something that the the equity planner and I thought about as well as the equity impact advisor. So Dr. Farris and I, we visit weekly as part of the equity impact advisors, and we are a part of the team that’s helping to inform the unified command on equity strategies. So I bring back my ideas on testing to this team and receive their feedback. And so, you know, that’s one thing. That’s where Dr. Farris and I overlap in our work with unified command meetings, as well as the equity impact advisors. So it’s been really neat to, you know, even have Dr. Farris in our community, because he really does help inform and provide that equity perspective. And I know that I can always reach out and bounce ideas off of Dr. Farris as well. And, and so this was a really neat opportunity, because we thought, you know, let’s, we know that vaccines, we’re going to have our very first public face to vaccine clinic. And, and actually, when we planned this event, it was before we knew that that was the week it was it was going to happen. And so it really did fit a need because individuals were like this helped clear, clear things up for me. Now I know, when I go tomorrow to my appointment, that I you know, that I need to bring my ID and insurance card. And if I don’t have insurance, that’s okay. And so really having ways to connect to people and just share information, I think it’s so key to this work, and having a team of individuals who focus on equity that can help bounce ideas and provide some strategies and things like that, it is really great. It’s awesome. And I do feel like we have that support from the city, and from the county and in in public health. And so I know that that’s not something that every public health department has. And so you know, Douglas County has this opportunity to really work towards these efforts and move forward in equity in our state. And so it’s exciting to be a part of that process.

Ben Kittelson  46:48

Very cool. Awesome. Well, we’ll be sure to link to that in the in the show notes. So so folks can find that. So in our in our last few minutes together, I’m going to zoom out and and talk about kind of equity and kind of maybe a little broader conversation. So I’m curious, you know, Dr. Muhammad, you talked a little bit about kind of what you did as when you’re studying a new place and setting up, you know, a new Equity and Inclusion program, city, but what what are some, maybe some of the other initiatives or programs they were working on, in your in your new job?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  47:23

Yeah, so several things. So my approach usually trying to get a sense of, so I subscribe to a few different things. One I kind of alluded to earlier about kind of taking this approach, which often is referred to as a SODEI model, like S-O-D-E-I, which is kind of initially, sometimes you arrive a new place, or depending on what your role is in your job, you want to try to suspend judgment, and just come in fresh, right and be able to respond differently. And then the O is kind of observe, right? So just kind of observe what’s going on. And then you D would be like describe and try to get a sense of just the objective facts. How do I describe what transpired here, right? And then you kind of go into the I and start to make interpretations. Okay, I see that happening, this has happened, this is probably why these things are happening, then you make an overall evaluation to kind of get a snapshot and say, Okay, my ideal, based on my research, this is kind of, I think, what’s happening, and you kind of develop a strategy from that point. And so embarking upon my first 90 days here, that’s about where I’m at. In addition to that, I also like to utilize the GARE model approach, which the city of Lawrence is a member of GARE organization, which is Government Alliance on Race and Equity. And the kind of the GARE approach is kind of normalizing organizing, and operationalizing. So first and foremost, especially when you start talking about race, and race really creates a certain discomfort for oftentimes member of the members of the dominant culture. And so when you start talking about just normalizing the conversation surrounding race, especially now more than ever, with this pandemic, if we can’t have very candid conversation about what’s transpiring, such as, again, the history of racist health care policies that have disproportionately impacted members of darker communities, right. So until we can really be very candid, in those conversations, say, Listen, this is what transpired. This is what has happened, because I am also a firm believer that you can’t grow in denial, right? So you have to be able to really identify and address the real facts of what’s happening. So we can develop a real model, a real strategy, to address those concerns. So for me, luckily, in this community, in the city organization, as overall, most departments are very comfortable kind of talking about race or more comfortable than other places I’ve seen so I’ll often get lots of emails from different departments trying to ask questions on Hey, this is a project we’re working on. We do want to ensure that equity is at the forefront of this project. What are some better ways we could do that, whether it’s through looking at our policies, our practices, our budget, so on and so forth. So I’m often pointed in different directions to help work with different departments. Then big picture right now the city is currently working on our strategic plan. We’re taking a very new approach to our strategic planning process. And so we have these kind of five outcome areas and these six commitment areas. And the six commitment areas are designed to be infused and help those different outcome areas meet their targeted goals and their key performance indicators and their metrics. One of the, one of the areas is equity and inclusion as far as the commitment teams. So we have a whole team as far as that’s designed to be able to address equity and inclusion in each of the outcome areas. So the outcome is kind of the what what do we want to accomplish? And the commitment team is sort of the how, so how do we go about that, right? So from an equity and inclusion standpoint, how do we make sure we infuse equity in all these different areas, so that equity is infused throughout our our entire organization and all the decisions that we’re making. So I think the City agreeing and having that support of the city commission to support this kind of strategic plan, I think is beautiful. But in addition to that, again, the whole the, the overall, the culture surrounding this area as far as the different anchor institutions in this area. So when I think in terms of, for example, the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Commerce, right now have pulled community members together to kind of talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in our business community. The school district has been working on a different strategy, as far as having courageous conversations, they’ve been doing that work for quite a while. And they got some real champions like Danica Moore, who was really helping to lead equity throughout the school district. At the county right now we had the county are members of the GARE organization, they just did a whole equity assessment and survey, and just got the data back to where they’re kind of drilling down and looking at the data to see where are the inequities at the county. And that’s being driven and led by the prosecutor’s office or DAs office, which is a very unique approach that you don’t see throughout this country often. And so my point is, lots of people are doing this kind of work. So when you come together now, during this pandemic, on a unified command based on that structure, and you just hear people saying, okay, we’re working on this project, and this is what equity looks like in this project, where you are able to bounce ideas off of other anchor institutions or entities and organizations, it really makes for an overall very healthy environment throughout this entire community, in addition to other partnerships, I’m developing with other people. So that’s going to work, I’m trying to get a better sense of the moving parts. So we don’t have to duplicate efforts. But we can also create that kind of reinforcement and help create a stronger infrastructure in this whole region, as relates to equity. So trying to make sense out of all the moving parts, and how do I continuously contribute, and guide people and provide sound strategies and information to people to where it’s not overwhelming because some of these conversations can be overwhelming for people, you talk about race, but making sure I understand people’s comfort level. So when I am given advice, they don’t feel overwhelmed or discouraged. But yet instead, they can feel encouraged and kind of continuously run with that kind of model of equity and bring about change in that regard.

Ben Kittelson  52:57

Very cool. Awesome. And Ruaa, when we were getting ready for this, this interview, Dr. Muhammad told me that some of your work is infusing equity into kind of healthcare based on like some research and best practices. So I don’t know, if you have some handy examples to share. But are there some examples of those best practices, that you might share that for, you know, general strategies for incorporating equity into into public health?

Ruaa Hassaballa  53:23

Yeah, you know, for me, when I think about incorporating equity into public health, it’s really about looking at the social determinants of health, right? So it’s looking beyond individual interventions, really addressing the root causes of different problems, you know, and so, when I think about strategies that are effective, I think about one incorporating it, where it’s collaborative effort, you know, that’s known to be effective, because you are working together with communities, because they know their issues the most. And so when it comes to public health, that collaborative effort of working alongside communities, of first starting with assessing the need, you know, and so that looks like, first figuring out what, what is it looking like right now? You know, how are we doing, gathering that data and information, and then seeing what needs to be changed. This also includes developing a plan and some objectives that are measurable, achievable, you know, they call the smart objective is, you know, so specific, measurable, you know, and so, this is really important. And when I think about infusing equity, it’s being able to have individuals at the table of decision making, and it’s being able to work together alongside individuals who have the lived experiences of the populations we’re working with and so it’s really about addressing the root causes, look at what in a broader background or context needs to be changed and how can we transform environments to ensure health for all and so that for me has what I think is a really good strategy to go with and working together with partners and kind of like this description with unified command, ensuring that folks are represented from all walks of life in this decision making. So it’s really having a group come together, see and assess what is needed, and having community members represented in the work. And so that is one example of how we can achieve health equity within the public health field.

Ben Kittelson  55:31

Awesome, very cool. All right. So I have a final question. A traditional question on Gov Love, so you guys can can each pick a song, or maybe you can, you can come to an agreement. But if you could be the Gov Love DJ for the day and pick a song to be our exit music, what what song would you pick?

Dr. Farris Muhammad  55:51

For some reason the song that comes to my mind is, I guess because I was I was playing it last night. It’s a song by the great philosopher and scholar, Aubrey Graham, better known as Drake. He has a song with somebody called a Future called Diamonds Dancing, and it just kind of talk about the importance of diamonds and having a brighter look throughout society and life. So I think it’s a very powerful song for myself.

Ben Kittelson  56:16

Very cool.

Ruaa Hassaballa  56:17

That’s a really good one. And honestly, for me, you know, I can think of some Michael Jackson songs that come to mind, you know, and, and I think it’s also just that, you know, that perspective of, you know, having of that energy, bringing energy into our work, you know, and so, I would say, I don’t have a specific song, but I just think of artists like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson just, that bring this certain level of passion and energy to their work. And that’s how it feels, you know, being a part of this effort.

Ben Kittelson  56:54

Perfect. So, you’re the Whitney Houston of public health is what we’re hearing. Awesome. Well, we’ll get some songs queued up to take us out here. And with that, that ends our episode for today. Thank you, both Dr. Muhammad and Ruaa, for for coming on and talking with me. I really appreciate it. Awesome, and for our listeners. Gov Love is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at ELGL.org/GovLove, on Facebook or on Twitter at the handle @GovLovePodcast. You can support Gov Love by joining ELGL. Membership is $50 for an individual, or $25 for students. You can also sign up your whole organization. Subscribe to Gov Love on your favorite podcast app. If you’re already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. Help us spread the word that Gov Love is the go to place for local government stories. With that, thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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