After graduating from the University of Illinois, Dr. Joseph West worked in child welfare for two years, where he grew frustrated and decided to pursue a PhD in Sociology. He was en route to a Master’s in Sociology when he worked on the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, where he met Dr. Felton Earls, a professor in Public Health and Social Medicine at Harvard. Dr. Earls convinced him to switch paths to public health, and became a key mentor as Dr. West became the first African American to obtain a doctoral degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. Since then, Dr. West has conducted research in numerous areas including smoking cessation and diabetes. He has also written and produced several plays including Suga Foot Blues, and the memoir Trod the Stony Road.
Career in Profile:
- 1994 – Graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelors in Sociology and a minor in Economics
- 1999 – Completed his M.Sc. in Health and Social Behavior
- 2004 – Completed his Sc.D in Social Epidemiology and Health Policy from the Harvard School of Public Health
- 2004-2006 – Worked as a researcher on the California Foster Care and Chicago Housing Project Study at Chapin Hall Center in Chicago
- 2006-2007 – Worked as Project Director at the Center for Study Cultural Diversity in Healthcare at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. Studies included the Neighborhood Disparities Project and the Milwaukee Infant Mortality Project.
- 2007 – 2013 – Served as senior epidemiologist and project director at the Sinai Urban Health Institute. Work included the Block-by Block Diabetes Community Action Project and the Breathing Freedom Smoking Cessation Project.
- NOW – Senior Partner at Whitaker Kinne Group
So how did you end up in public health?
After undergraduate at University of Illinois, I spent two years doing child welfare work transitioning young people involved in foster care to adulthood. I got frustrated with that and I felt that I needed and wanted to go back to graduate school. I wanted to get a Ph.D in sociology and was actually taking classes at Roosevelt University in the evening, studying sociology towards a master’s degree, and then I started working on the Project for Human Development in Chicago neighborhoods.
I was working there during the day, I was going to school at night and that’s when I met Dan Kindlon (sic), Steve Buka (sic) and Dr. Earls. Tony Earls, after a conversation about what I wanted to do and study, he said, “You are not a sociologist, you are an epidemiologist”. I didn’t know what that was, and he said, “Public health is going to be the key for you”, and he introduced me to Dan Kindlon, who was part of the project, and wrote that book Raising Cain, that became really popular after the Columbine shootings. Then to Steve Buka, that whole group! So I applied to all these graduate schools and I didn’t get into any except to Harvard.
When I got there I realized why I got into Harvard. It was an eye opener about the graduate process for a Ph.D. It’s a subjective process. I got in because of Dr. Earls. He not only wrote a letter of support, he and Steve, all of the HSPH guys who were working on the PHDCN project wrote letters. They said that this school had not graduated an African American out of the doctoral program and that they would support me. They said I’ve been a part of this project, I’ll have my own data and that they think I should get in. That’s what happened, at least my understanding of it. They made it clear that they were going to mentor me. That was my first introduction to the idea of a mentor and how important mentoring is. Because even though I thought I had the scores and the experience, it was the idea that I was going to continue to work with these scientists that are respected in the field and that they were also willing to allow me to explore some of my own interests while in Boston that led me to public health.
What was working on that project like?
It was incredible. Field research and collecting data in the field is tough. Its funny because now I am the director of a project where I have people go out to do just that. So I understand what they do because I did it for a year. Its interesting because when you are in people’s homes, not only are you collecting data on the questions that are on the protocol, you are also collecting data based on your interaction and experience with them in that moment. I was one of the few research assistants that actually did that. There were people who went into the homes and only asked the questions and circled the boxes on the list, even though at the end, at the back of the protocols there were all these pages with space for notes. People didn’t write down information about what they were seeing and what was going on and what was happening in the house etc. They didn’t do any of that, but I did. I would try to fill up mine, because there was a lot that I thought was relevant in that home or in that community that was beyond the questions and the boxes. With my team now that’s the hardest thing to get them to do. I try my best, but my team is guilty of that. They don’t feel comfortable writing it and they don’t feel comfortable commenting. I say all this to say that I realized then that I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more than just to collect the data, I really wanted to do more.
What is one of your greatest career challenges?
Finding the time to write. Whereas some people can analyze a large dataset and then write, I have to interact with the community or with my team on a daily basis. It’s challenging to block off time to write. I’ve also had to learn to speak to different audiences and to different issues. My greatest challenge has been putting together my body of work. I’ve found my stride. I know exactly what I want to write about and where to build my research. I’ve started another book and I’ve got my focus. I feel a bit of pressure because of my age. I may not have reached some of my personal benchmarks, but I have reset them, and I want to really reach those goals. If you don’t outline your career steps right now, you will probably bounce around, and will not build a cohesive body of work. I want to build a coherent body of work and continue to grow.
What is something in your career that you feel really proud of?
My diabetes work. I got the grant funding and started working in the community through the Block by Block project, and there’s been some spin off. We’ve been able to fund other activities in the neighborhood, to start a dialogue about diabetes and food. We can engage the community around these issues. In the Lawndale Diabetes Project – a follow up of the Block by Block project – we train health educators to go door to door within the community. They talk with residents about diabetes, provide basic guidance around diet, exercise etc. After we work with people to get them advice and support, they can be turned over to disease management and then follow up with doctor appointments etc. So now, I’m at that point in my career where I have enough, in terms of ideas and experience, to really produce.
I am fascinated that you’ve written a book that is not entirely public health related, and that you are also producing plays that seem public health oriented. Can you talk about those projects?
By my understanding, I was the first African American male to obtain a doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health. I wrote Trod the Stony Road to try to make sense of my journey. I live in the community where the Lawndale diabetes project takes place. I also lived in East St. Louis, a pretty challenged community. I had a brother who used to be in and out of prison. So how does a kid come from this type of background make it all the way to Harvard? I talk about all the things that I went through, from an attempted suicide when I was 13 to having a gun to my head, and then I talk about grace and my sense of space. That I was spared for a reason, or maybe for some kind of purpose, was something I needed to make sense of. I felt like I was just stumbling forward, trying to make sense of it all. That’s why I wrote that book.
As an undergrad I did a lot of theater, and I’ve realized that my creative side is just as important as my scientific side. I like to write! I’m doing diabetes scientific work, and that’s what for one audience. But there’s another audience that needs to understand the human side of diabetes. Suga Foot Blues is the story of a female dancer who has Type II Diabetes. She hasn’t taken great care of herself, so she is going to lose her foot. We all know all the clinical issues that come with poor management of Type II Diabetes … but what about when she goes home and has to deal with the emotional issues? What happens in that home? Because it’s not just her, she has a family and they have to deal with it, too. It’s how I take my day-to-day profession and turn it into art. It is about the healing power of art, theater and the spoken word; it’s about how you take relevant, quantitative, quantifiable data and translate it into art.
So when it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?
Public health really is about human development and what people need to learn early in life. Adult behavior change and learning is difficult, even things like washing your hands are difficult. Our relationship to food, our cultural rights and rituals with food…a lot of people are not connected. There are a lot of social networks but people are not connected. We have a culture that promotes recklessness with each other and with our selves. We all struggle with learning.
Many of the poverty-related health issues relate to lack of empathy and understanding. It’s not strictly economic. Before diabetes, I worked on a smoking cessation project where we tried to reach out to young pregnant girls. Most were exposed to large amounts of second hand smoke. Their challenge was that they didn’t have a place to stay, so they might be with their parents or grandparents, and say their mother had a boyfriend and they both smoked. “I can’t tell them not to smoke just because I’m pregnant, because they’ll say, ‘You’re the one that’s pregnant, you move.’ Or maybe her boyfriend is really abusive and she can’t tell him to not smoke. You realize that there are people that don’t have empathy for her or her child’s health. That’s not racism! That’s not poverty! That’s a lack of human development and empathy.
Our diabetes project has a cooking class, and one participant said that when she tried to cook a really nice meal and serve with right portion sizes, her family looked at her like she was crazy. “I’m supposed to eat this little bit of food? You are supposed to fill up my plate. You’re the one that has diabetes, not us!” If people aren’t supportive, what can you do?
Policy makers also lack human development and empathy. They create policies without understanding how those policies impact people’s lives. We have illiterate policy makers and legislators. They can read what’s written, but they can’t understand the human condition. There’s a gross degree of lack of understanding on both sides of the aisle.
So what is your ideal solution?
That’s a challenge. We have to start on both ends. We have to engage people at a grassroots level to talk about their own health, well-being, community, family. I see so much fragmentation and brokenness in communities now. We have to think about how we can be connected together. At the other end, we have to get politicians and policy makers and legislators to have honest discussions about policy. We have not had a truly honest discourse about policy. Everything is a sound bite, and you can’t grow on a sound bite.