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Highlighting Black Faculty: Public Health, Activism, and Mentorship With Professor Celeste Davis

BY: SOFIA DEAN

Public health is a field that's importance has become more evident amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, exposing how systemic racism has permeated every aspect of our lives.

Professorial lecturer in the Public Health Department, Celeste Davis, is one faculty member in the field. Davis grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and her family moved to Atlanta, Georgia when she was in the first grade. Growing up in a predominantly Black area was affirming for Davis. While attending a Black private school with an intimate learning space, she was able to immerse herself in an environment where she could begin to feel comfortable in finding herself.

Davis then moved back to Ann Arbor with her family, attending a rural public school where most students and faculty were white. By the 12th grade, she was ready for a change in setting, thus chose to attend Bennett College, an HBCU for women. She later earned her Master of Public Health in Health Management and Policy from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University School of Law.

The Blackprint had time to discuss public health, activism, and the importance of mentorship with Professor Davis. Read below to see our conversation.

The Blackprint: When you attended Bennett College, what led you to pursue public health?

Celeste Davis: When I got to Bennett, I was a psychology major doing a Bachelor's of Science because I knew I would still get a liberal arts background having taken my science classes too. 

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I did an internship in DC that was focused on public health, and at that time we didn't have undergrad public health. As I was learning about public health, and about health disparities in different communities with Black folks who look like me, I was like, oh this is discrimination, this is about racism and this is about these social structures. I had always been very politically active and very justice-minded.

So at that point, I wanted to look into public health and as I was digging I was also solid on going to law school and I was like, policy is really what I want to do. If you're going to be in a room where change happens it's with policymakers and that's what I decided at 20, and I got very laser-focused on it.

BP: How do you combine your professional work with your community activism?

CD: Work is like a big umbrella and there are different buckets where I express, so I express part of it when I'm teaching. I also do board work for an organization called Birth Detroit. They've built a birth center in Detroit. That is where a lot of my justice-minded work goes and thinking about the history of work I've done with reproductive justice about maternal mortality from all birthing people. I also am on the steering committee for this organization called Public Health Awakened, and we are advocates and organizers around issues that are related to social determinants. It's a very justice-minded organization and it's where I'm able to do some hardcore advocacy work. We do a lot of actions and demonstrations, as well as educating folks both in public health and outside about this framework of justice, which is really cool and so that's a good outlet for me too. 

Also, I'm just so dedicated to mentoring, because I had amazing mentors and I think that the only path to success is through people who invest in you. That's really a huge driver for me no matter what work I do, I'm trying to make sure that young people have the support that they need in order to do the work that they want to do. I feel like I'm at a point in my career now where I am passing the baton and trying to impart the wisdom that I have on young people so that y'all can do the work. I'm just here to try to help hold up the good structures and help you dismantle the bad ones.

BP: That actually leads to my next question. Is there a specific mentor or someone that you looked up to? How have they influenced your work?

CD: When I got my first job out of grad school, I came to DC, and I was working for an organization, but I wasn't doing much and I really wanted to do more. I was here in DC and in a chance encounter, the former mayor of Detroit was in my building.

I was able to talk to him about what I wanted to do and after some networking I was connected with the CEO of an organization called the Greater Detroit Area Health Council. This woman was also the former Director of Community Health in Michigan and she was like the godmother of public health Michigan. So I met with her, we did an informational interview, and six months later she called me offering me a job as Director of Community Health. Within that year of shadowing her, I learned so much about leadership. I learned a lot about being political and strategic, but having her mentorship and her knowing that I was a young person to invest into had more impact than any educational experience I've ever had. I then went to law school and by the time I got there, I realized I had changed so much and I'd learned so much of a new skill set. I think there's mentorship and then there's sponsorship, where someone actually opens the doors for you, and that was amazing and a lot of why I am the way I am right now.

BP: That's great. What is one piece of advice you would give to young Black women at AU, specifically in the public health field?

CD: I would say public health is filled with Black women, I think it's probably one of the areas where we can be ourselves and leaders. I think that's why we are drawn to it, and we're doing work on behalf of the community. You have the power to re-imagine the systems and structures. You don't have to try to place yourself in these and think that just being successful within the system is all that you have. There's equity and then there's liberty and striving for true liberation is the goal, and equity can help get us there. But that's not the last stop, the last stop is liberation and that should be the goal. Even if we're not talking about it yet. 


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