Emerging Lessons: Ready, Willing, and Able to Create Public Health Safespaces

In March 2020, at the brink of the pandemic, the National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI), was months away from hosting our signature event, the NNPHI Annual Conference in May. As we eagerly awaited the arrival of our members, partners, funders, training centers and friends to New Orleans for a jubilee celebrating 20 years of public health impact; we would soon find out just how much impact the coronavirus would have on our lives and the field of public health. By the end of March, with Covid-19 being declared a pandemic by world health leaders across the globe and countries and communities coming to a complete standstill, it was evident that our beloved conference would not be feasible in the coming months. As a result, NNPHI made the necessary yet difficult decision to cancel our 2020 conference. We knew that replicating the in-person networking and learning experience would be challenging virtually but most importantly, our public health community was now being called to the frontlines to combat a virus that was crippling our very healthcare system and our network needed the backbone support to do just that.

As COVID-19 continued to exasperate the health disparities within black and brown communities who were disproportionately affected by the virus at alarming rates coupled with the inhumane and senseless murder of George Floyd, one of the many deaths that year exposing the menace of racism; NNPHI was yet at another crossroad as to how to best support the network during these challenging and unprecedented times. Resultantly, the NNPHI Member Task Force was birthed.  The Member Taskforce was a unique opportunity for members to come together on a volunteer-basis to respond and address a variety of issues facing our communities. These workgroups included contact tracing, telehealth, health equity, workforce development and many more. As these workgroups tackled critical issues head-on, we knew we needed to share the valuable lessons and work with our partners. Enter…

Emerging Lessons from COVID Response: Rooted in Health and Racial Equity with Branches across Sectors! 

The event concept was simple, we wanted to create a space where participants would be able to share lessons-learned, challenges, ideas, concepts and workplans regarding how they were supporting the response and recovery of COVID-19 within their respective communities, states, and jurisdiction across the country. With Denise Octavia Smith, Executive Director of the National Association of Community Health Workers (NACHW) delivering our keynote address, participants left with recommendations from NACHW on how to leverage their expertise (found here) and emphasized that Community Health Workers (CHWs) are rooted in equity and there is much to be learned from them during the COVID response. In addition, attendees also had the opportunity to participate in intimate breakout sessions related to contact tracing, systemic racism, and vaccine development.

Race Together for Public Health

With the overwhelming success of the first event and majority of attendees reporting that they left with recommendations for moving forward as members of the public health workforce and are better prepared for the next pandemic and to address systemic inequities; we knew that the series could not stop there. As we began the planning of part II in the midst of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and a new federal administration launching we wanted to participate in a virtual conversation to shape the future for 2021 and beyond! Part II launched NNPHI’s new health and racial equity initiative, Race Together for Public Health. Participants engaged in discussions related to increasing multisector partnerships for racial equity, heard straight from elected officials on how to depoliticize public health, and explored opportunities for strengthening our public health workforce, harnessing innovation and technology, and sustaining public-private partnerships health equity. With a thought-provoking and invigorating keynote address by Dr. Cara James, our audience learned how philanthropy is responding to COVID-19 and working to achieve health equity. Data from a recent survey with funders conducted by Grantmakers in Health was shared and we learned that 82% of respondents reported that their foundation’s heath programming changed after March 2020 and that the top challenge to achieving their health equity goals was board engagement and support.

Action Towards Equity

With two successful emerging lesson events under our belt, over a year since COVID-10 was first declared a pandemic and two months shy of what would have been NNPH’s 21st Annual Conference in May of 2021, to pay homage to the many strides of our network within the last several months, we decided to formally wrap up the Emerging Lessons series with our final iteration, Part III, Action Towards Equity. Due to vaccine distribution already underway across the country, we wanted to take it back to our public health roots and inform more about the vaccine. Dr. Carlos Del Rio presented on the science surrounding the COVID vaccine, discussed vaccine hesitancy, and shared strategies for how we can address vaccine equity in the next stages of the pandemic response.  Each of the Emerging Lessons events had touched on the work of NNPHI’s Health Equity workgroups and this one was no different. The audience was able to hear the latest work the Regional Public Health Training Center’s Racial Justice Workgroup is undertaking to develop a racial and health equity competency model for public health professionals, a presentation of the first iteration of the racial and health equity framework developed by NNPHI’s external equity workgroup, and an introduction to the resource list being developed by NNPHI’s internal equity workgroup. There is so much great work coming out of these groups that I cannot wait to get my hands on the final products!

Breakout sessions were full of rich information as well. The COVID-19 member Workforce Development workgroup shared a new report for the field, Recommendations on the Role and Future Directions of Community Health Workers in the Public Health Workforce and we heard from CDC and two NNPHI members on how NNPHI and its members have served as administrative partnerships to support states and how this can be replicated quickly and strategically with the resources coming through the American Rescue Plan.


While this series was a huge success and we were thankful to be able to engage with our partners and audience, it still does not take the place of being together physically. We missed you all and are excited to announce that planning is currently underway for NNPHI’s 21st Annual Conference and we want to continue the conversations we started here and expand even further. The conference will be taking place May 17-19, 2022, in New Orleans. Abstracts and registration will launch this fall and we hope that you will consider submitting for the great work that you are doing. Please stay tuned for more details by signing up today for updates.


As we say in New Orleans, Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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