Dr. Dawn Michele Richardson

(Health Fellows & Scholars)
Assistant Professor of Community Health, College of Urban & Public Affairs; School of Community Healt
Portland, Oregon
United States

Focus Areas

Public Health & Safety
Youth Development
Youth Development


In his definition of the American Dream, James Truslow Adams wrote, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Gender, race, ethnicity, class, circumstance of birth, or position in life were not supposed to matter, much less stand in the way of the “fullest stature of which [people] are innately capable.” It was a pleasant dream of a meritocratic society during the early nightmare years of the Great Depression—idealistic enough to lift spirits, and as counter to the American reality then as it is now. In 2008, the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health (SDH) concluded in a report that our health and therefore our lives are indeed influenced by who we are, where we come from, and what we experience. These factors influence our ability to achieve the dream. For some, the outcomes are positive. Many, however, experience negative consequences of the SDH such as structural racism, lack of access to education, limited housing and employment options, unequal healthcare resources, and other barriers to better, richer, and fuller lives. Here in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, efforts are underway in earnest to take on the social and environmental factors that stand in the way of equal opportunity in health as well as life. In 2012, PSU launched the SDH Initiative, a network for academics, community partners, government agencies, healthcare systems, for- and non-profit organizations dedicated to identifying and addressing issues related to the social determinants gouging yawning chasms between those for whom the dream is accessible and those for whom it should be accessible but is not due to the condition of their birth and the circumstances in which they live. Doctor of Public Health, Dawn Richardson, Assistant Professor, School of Community Health (SCH), is one of many researchers whose work focuses on partnering with communities to improve health, promote equity, and achieve a higher quality of life for the underserved and underrepresented. Dr. Richardson’s career in public health began a decade and a half ago in southeast Tennessee where she worked preventing the spread of HIV. She earned a Master of Public Health from Tulane University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. As a Kellogg Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Michigan, Dr. Richardson worked with the Healthy Environments Partnership, a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) partnership in Detroit studying the effects of racism and limited access to opportunity on cardiovascular health across the life course of a group of Detroiters. As part of this work she supported the evaluation of an NIH-funded walking group intervention designed to improve cardiovascular health and build community capacity for active living. Dr. Richardson joined the faculty of PSU in 2012 with four other faculty members hired to focus on SDH. In her time at the university, she has collaborated on research with fellow SDH Initiative members, Drs. Ginny-Garcia-Alexander, Lynn Messer, Kelly Gonzalez, and SCH Director, Dr. Carlos Crespo. Dr. Richardson’s work frequently involves employing the methods of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). CBPR brings academics and community groups together in equal partnership to identify specific community needs and develop research projects with the goal of providing those needs in culturally sensitive ways. One fascinating aspect of a number of Dr. Richardson’s CBPR projects past and present is the incorporation of photography as a tool to gather and contextualize data. During her first year at PSU, Dr. Richardson was awarded $25,000 from Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University for her proposal “Photo-Mapping Pathways to Mobility.” In this study, Dr. Richardson is investigating social mobility amongst the teenage children of Mexican immigrants living in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Portland. The aim of the study is to learn from the youth about the barriers and facilitators of social mobility and educational opportunities. Data collection on the project finished in August of 2013. Urban Planning graduate student Lori Parks is working with Dr. Richardson to analyze the data and a report is expected this summer. “In that study we had 30 young Mexican Americans take pictures of their neighborhoods. The pictures were geocoded, so we have their location on a map. Now we’re developing a social mobility profile using proxies for mobility like school poverty rates, teacher/student ratios, and poverty rates in the neighborhoods. We’re looking at our data and trying to find relationships between where people are in this spatial landscape of Portland and how that may or may not inform the type of photos they take, the content, and the story they’re telling about their lives.” While the analytics are not yet complete, Dr. Richardson is quick to point out that the outcomes for these students are overwhelmingly positive with many either in college or college bound. “When you look at the national data, the traditional story goes: the Mexican-American second generation experiences numerous barriers to mobility, with limited college success, high rates of teen pregnancy and incarceration. It’s a unique story, what we’re finding here in Portland among these youth. We’re trying to figure out what’s going on and how we can build on it.” Richardson also serves alongside Dr. Carlos Crespo as Co-Program Director of the NIH-funded Portland Bridges to Baccalaureate project. This program aims at increasing the diversity of biomedical research professionals working to identify and mitigate health disparities. Bridges to Baccalaureate is a partnership between PSU and Portland Community College (PCC) to recruit, support, and ready PCC (and soon other community college) underrepresented transfer students from to successfully complete baccalaureate degrees that lead to research careers in the Biomedical, Behavioral and Health Sciences. There are many reasons to investigate and address the social determinants of health. A more equitable society will lead to a more peaceful society. A better and higher level of education is indicative of an individual’s capacity to make healthy lifestyle choices. A healthier population is a more productive and prosperous. And the more prosperous a society is, the more it can contribute to the fulfillment of the American Dream for all now and for generations to come. This is why the research conducted by Dr. Dawn Richardson and her graduate and undergraduate students is so important. Overcoming the adverse influences on health caused by social determinants is the first step to a better, richer, and fuller life for all and Dr. Richardson is just one of a number of researchers at PSU striving to make that happen.