Debra Joy Perez (National Medical Fellowships 2000-'01, Harvard), Senior Program Officer, Research and Evaluation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey.
This article was originally published in the JUne 2007 issue of the KFLA Newsletter.
Debra Perez bridged the worlds from her childhood neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey, to the ivy walls of Harvard University. Now an expert on reducing racial disparities in healthcare, she ensures others from neighborhoods like her own have a voice.
A first-generation college graduate, Debra recalls, "I was the only non-white person in a very small group of college-prep students at Trenton High. My tenth grade guidance counselor was the first person to say to me, 'You can go to college.' She made the difference in my life. I now have two master's degrees, and a Ph.D. from Harvard. I'm committed to living as an example of what is possible based on where I've come from and what I've accomplished."
Debra's journey was a difficult one. She says, "During my graduate work at Harvard, I often felt, 'I don't belong here. They don't want me here.' I was confronted with racism in subtle forms everyday. They questioned my intelligence, my pedigree, and whether or not I got in because I was a minority. It was very painful." She felt that she continually had to fight battles to address the topic of inequity in health and healthcare. Debra and a colleague approached a professor about incorporating the literature on healthcare disparities. Debra recalls, "The professor said what many still say today when a brown person suggests more outreach, more diversity, or broader networks, 'make it happen.'" So Debra and her colleague found the materials and the speakers, and put the first session on disparities into the curriculum.
Today, health disparities is a central session of that core course. But Debra believed in possibilities and knew others around campus cared about racial and ethnic disparities in health and healthcare. In 2001, Debra co-chaired Harvard's first symposium on public health disparities. Some 300 attended from across the country. Says Debra, "I remember thinking, 'What if I wasn't here?' She realized that she was at Harvard for a reason and, to create change, "had to be in that conversation in that Ivory Tower." Today, as part of the nation's largest foundation working to improve healthcare, Debra is continuing the conversation. She is a well-known speaker on issues of diversity and disparities in public healthcare. At the foundation, Debra works to strengthen programs through incorporating diverse perspectives at every level.
Recently, she and her colleagues in Research and Evaluation created New Connections, a program to link first-time grantees to the foundation's research priorities. In its first annual symposium, the New Connections initiative brought together a network of historically underrepresented researchers, including not only New Connections grantees, but those who had been turned down for funding. This had never been done before.
"I'm inspired by the work we do," she says. "The infusion of diversity and the elimination of disparities is my purpose in life and I'm able to see it operationalized here at the foundation." In regards to her personal achievements, Debra says, "I measure success by the people I inspire." She explains, "I'd like to live an inspiring life, both to myself and others. There's plenty that can be done in the world, and I really believe all things are possible."