Meet the Scholars: Erica Browne
Erica Browne is Dr.P.H. student in Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. She is part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2016.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are?
I am originally from Los Angeles and have spent most of my life vacillating between Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area for school and work. I received a BA degree in Development Studies from UC Berkeley and an MPH degree in Community Health Sciences from UCLA. My broad research interest is in the significance of hospitals and health care systems in urban neighborhoods, and the population health impacts of their community investments. My dissertation research is a critical analysis of the California not-for-profit hospital community benefits landscape. Prior to my doctoral studies, I spent most of my professional career working for health care organizations—some small, others large and incredibly well-resourced—which exposed me to a range of community health issues and possible ways for health care organizations to respond. I am also broadly interested in social inequities in health, urban health, and health services research in community benefits.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
Several years ago, I was introduced to the documentary A Jewel in History: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which recounts the history and significance of Black hospitals and medical schools in the United States, and the economic and social impacts of their widespread closures. I immediately bought a VHS copy of the documentary (which was the only medium available for viewing the film!), and showed it to whomever was willing to watch. So much of that story resonated with me, with my family’s history, and with my personal experience as a proud employee of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. More than a century before research on hospitals and community investments became popular, these hospitals were making unprecedented investments in educating and training the Black health care workforce, in local Black businesses, local economies and the overall health and well-being of socially marginalized racial/ethnic groups. I have thought a lot about that history, that incredible story, in my work, and it motivates me to approach my dissertation project as both research and story excavation. Conducting research on the challenges and opportunities encountered when making unconventional community investments provides me with an opportunity to reveal and communicate a variety of stories that might not otherwise be told.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about?
I am a pre-doctoral fellow with the California Program on Access to Care (CPAC), which is a UC-wide research translation center that endeavors to improve health equity in California through the translation of UC and California State University (CSU) faculty research into policy and practice. I lead our Social Determinants of Health Through Cross-Sector Collaboration Priority area, and we are supporting a number of dissemination projects at the intersections of public policy, administrative practice, and health equity that I am really excited about. Under Gavin Newsom’s recent leadership as governor, California is being positioned to move forward several equity-focused programs and policies. It’s really exciting to be affiliated with a research translation center that supports these efforts. I am also excited about the opportunity to learn about state policy making—the politics, attention cycles, and priorities—in order to inform my future health policy research endeavors.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
The majority of hospitals and health care systems in the United States are private, not-for-profit entities that report an estimated $60 billion in annual community benefits, and these resources can positively impact community health based on how (and for whom) they are invested. Even as private entities, health care organizations can create inclusive, community-engaged investment decisions that promote equity and address the unjust social, economic, and political conditions that produce poor health outcomes. Most importantly, there is evidence to suggest that some private, not-for-profit hospitals are already engaged in this type of community investment.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
I admire Zora Neale Hurston, and her pioneering anthropological research and literary work, because of her clear point of view and commitment to engaging in research that focused on, and attempted to uplift, the richness and complexity of Black culture. My first research endeavor, as an undergraduate Ronald E. McNair Scholar, was a study of traditional home remedies entitled, It’s like Everythang Ya Need is Right There in Ya Kitchen: Traditional Home Remedy as A Cultural Register of Black Motherhood. I was introduced to her work while in college, and so much of the inspiration for that project came from her work, her example, and her use of words. Now, as a doctoral student, I find myself going back to Zora Neale Hurston for inspiration, and for motivation when the donning of the labels and expectations of being in this role become uncomfortable for me. I also admire her ability to simultaneously be a researcher and creative artist, which is a part of myself and interests that I have yet to explore.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
Words, truly, cannot express that range of opportunities that the HPRS program has created for me. Beyond financial support, which is undeniably significant, the academic, professional, and peer mentorship has been such a blessing. Every person whom I have been introduced to has been exceptionally generous and supportive. Being in fellowship with other doctoral students from different programs and institutions has greatly enhanced my perspective on my program and experience within it. The Summer Institutes have given me the confidence and basic knowledge to engage in my learning and work as a CPAC fellow, and the range of communication workshops have motivated me to explore multiple forms of written communication for disseminating my work.
In the RWJF HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
I would use my research to inform any future California state legislation pertaining to defining and regulating hospital community benefits.
Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you had a talk show, who would your first three guests be?
I would make it extra fun by temporarily suspending any conventional notion of time, and inviting Biddy Mason, Gil Scott Heron, and perhaps Zora Neale Hurston to the show to share their life’s reflections and wisdom. I think we’d have a good time!