Dr. Torian Easterling, the outgoing first deputy commissioner and chief equity officer for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, spoke with the Amsterdam News for a Q&A on the work he has done while at the Department, and the challenges New York still faces. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AmNews: Please tell us about your thoughts as you look back on your time and accomplishments with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene?
As I look back on the last seven-and-a-half years during my tenure at the New York City Health Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, it’s been an incredible opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime. I’m a family physician, public health physician, who initially thought that I would practice and hang up my shingle and see patients in northern New Jersey, and then got focused on community health…Black and brown communities that have been marginalized [and] disproportionately impacted for decades…the best way to describe some of the accomplishments here at the Health Department—for one I think it has been a major accomplishment and an opportunity to work under major leaders who have championed equity and really focus their investments in neighborhoods during my time.
When you do a scan across this country you look at public health departments and certainly one that is as large as ours, to be bold about talking about structural racism, to be bold about making specific investments in neighborhoods like South Bronx, Brownsville, East Harlem, and saying I’m going to put millions of dollars into these communities, not just on staff but brick and mortar on-site programs, and say to our partners we need to work with, we cannot meet our goals unless we work with them, and so that’s how I got to the health department back in 2015. A commitment to working in the neighborhoods that I just referenced and so many more, and that’s the work that I’ve been doing over the last seven and a half years.
When we think about the data and what we’re seeing in Black and brown communities, the homicide rate due to gun violence of young men between ages of 18 and 44…the ongoing inequities around infant mortality…We’re still seeing these persistent inequities and Black women dying during childbirth in New York City compared to white women…somehow we are not making enough noise about that…the work that we were doing in Brooklyn was supporting a lot of the partners who’ve been working for more than two decades in this city and really trying to close the gap around maternalistic health outcomes and also expanding our investment in doula services…We have significantly grown [doula services] by starting A Healthy Start which funded team-based organizations…so we were having doula services in Staten Island and Queens working with a number of different organizations now under the Adams administration. I’m extremely grateful around the chronic disease prevention. We did a lot around expanding access.
AmNews: Are there any challenges you still feel need to be overcome?
I think the work of continuing to operationalize what it means to do equity not only in New York City but across the country, that’s our ongoing work and this is going to be long-term work. I lift it up because I want to ensure that…the achievements that we’ve made so far, we’re talking about 400 years of hardship for Black and brown folks in this country…this is a very young country and so the original sin of racism still is pervasive in our country in our society, so there’s a lot of work that we have to do to make sure that we do not just rely on what’s easy, to make decisions on what’s easy and what’s already set up.
We certainly had to be really mindful about that during our COVID response when we talk about vaccine equities.
AmNews: Where are you headed and where will the future take you?
I’m certainly looking forward to resting and relaxing with my family. Into the future is to be determined, there are lots of opportunities and possibilities. I hope to keep growing professionally and keep working in public health administration. There’s so many organizations and institutions who have committed to really growing equity investments and whether that’s a foundation or a healthcare system or academia, I think it’s really important making sure that I’m going to be working in an institution where there’s a real commitment to advancing health equity, that we’re not just giving lip service but that we are also saying to our own staff that we have to figure out what are the mistakes that we’ve made and how do we transform our own organization.