These Books on Health Equity Inform and Inspire

Aug 18, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by

The bold voices featured on this reading list offer empowering perspectives on advancing racial justice and health equity.

Books as Swings

During these tumultuous times, the sweltering heat need not slow our determination to achieve health equity. In fact, these remaining summer days give us all a chance to step back and consider the many intersecting influences on health in a larger context.

One way to do that is by delving into a good book! Reading can inform and deepen our commitment to shaping communities that give everyone in America a fair and just opportunity for health and wellbeing. Several of our colleagues have authored or contributed to books that mix personal stories, on-the-ground experiences, and insightful ideas to remind us of the opportunity to make a difference.

Find space during your next getaway or staycation to delve into this sampling of works!

Take Us to a Better Place

RWJF’s first-ever book of fiction helps us envision ways to build a healthier world. “Writers imagine how we might all thrive if we all had the inalienable right to participate in a culture of health that was actively supported economically, societally, politically,” writes Roxane Gay in the book’s introduction.

One story, The Plague Doctors, by award-winning author Karen Lord, visualizes life on a small island beset by a pandemic. The Plague Doctors was selected as one of 2021’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy stories.

Download the free e-book or audiobook.

The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans

Joshunda Sanders shares her mother's story and asks how we can create mentally healthy cities that foster care and healing for those who struggle with mental disorders.

RWJF Senior Communications Officer Joshunda Sanders describes her journey from a childhood caring for her mentally ill mother to the pursuit of an elite education and a professional career. This moving memoir of adversity, faith, and perseverance paints a personal portrait of how the social determinants of health shape our lives.

She writes, “My mother gave me the gift of faith, which has been essential to my life’s work as a writer and to my development as a human being, a woman, and a Black woman. From her, I also inherited a deep belief in the severe empathy that tragedy and heartbreak can bestow. I learned to laugh from my gut. I learned not to take anyone or anything for granted or to feel entitled to anything at all. Because of her, I am a fighter.”

You Are the Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience

RWJF Award for Health Equity winner Yolo Akili Robinson is a mental health advocate who brings healing to Black communities by confronting intergenerational trauma and challenging rigid norms around masculinity. His essay “Unlearning Shame and Remembering Love,” appears in an anthology edited by activist and founder of the #MeToo movement Tarana Burke, and Brené Brown who is known for her research on shame, empathy, courage, and vulnerability.

Robinson shares, “I have patterns to unlearn, new behaviors to embody and wounds to heal...I am unlearning generations of harm and remembering love. It takes time.”

Black Boy Shining and Black Girl Shining

As a researcher, educator, and advocate, Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant has dedicated her career to improving the lives of marginalized youth. Her children—Andrew and Leigha—inspired two vividly-illustrated children’s books. Black Boy Shining and Black Girl Shining bring to life uplifting affirmations aimed at fostering positive self-image and bold ambition to help children thrive.

The Political Determinants of Health

While many of us are familiar with the social determinants of health­—structural conditions that we are born into, live and die in—Daniel E. Dawes introduces us to a new framework in The Political Determinants of Health. He explores how a systemic process of structuring relationships, distributing resources and administering power operate simultaneously to advance or hinder health equity.

This explainer video describes how the political determinants of health affect us at the individual level.

Internationally renowned scholar and Harvard professor David Williams who wrote the foreword notes "With leaders like Daniel Dawes and his innovative approach to addressing structural inequities, I believe that the mighty walls of oppression and resistance that we currently face can be overcome and that the fight for health equity can serve as a desperately needed critical inflection point to provide justice for all and elevate America to its rightful place among the world's leaders."

The Contagion Next Time

Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, underscores the foundational inequities and lack of preparedness that allowed COVID-19 to take its terrible toll—and then points to lessons that can help us do better. “The awakening to deep-seated racial economic injustice that really came to the fore in 2020 was extraordinary and should illuminate a path forward,” says Galea.

Recognizing and capitalizing on the power of compassionate love is the place to begin, he wrote in a post last year. “Choosing love to advance health and racial equity starts with acknowledging both the harms that have been inflicted upon some populations and a celebration of all that we have in common and how we are stronger together. Then we must move from acknowledgment to action.”

Necessary Conversations: Understanding Racism as a Barrier to Achieving Health Equity

RWJF's Alonzo Plough and Jackie Orr discuss stories, ideas and strategies for working together to advance health equity.

RWJF’s chief science officer Alonzo Plough urges us to reckon with racism, highlights the harms of racial injustice, and offers strategies to advance health equity.

“We have deepened our understanding of what it means to build partnerships and community power and the centrality of leadership by those who are most affected by the decisions that influence their lives,” writes Plough. Understanding why meaningful conversations about race are so critical encourages us to do the hard work of engaging in them.

Download the free e-book.

Rx for Racial Healing: A Guide to Embracing Our Humanity

Change agent Gail Christopher lays out a model for fostering human connection and eradicating the racial hierarchy that has been embedded in the United States since its inception. By illuminating the ways in which issues of racial equity thread through housing, education, health, and economic opportunity, Christopher seeks to heal injuries of the past and create a space that allows us to be comfortable striving together. “We can stand up as American people and learn to see ourselves in the face of each other,” she says. “We can learn to demonstrate empathy and compassion for one another.”

Reducing the Health Harms of Incarceration

Published by the Aspen Health Strategy Group (AHSG), which includes RWJF president and CEO Richard Besser as a member, this book offers five big ideas for confronting the damage wrought by incarceration. It includes background papers that examine mass incarceration as a manifestation of structural racism, grapple with its impact on community heath, and explore the challenges of treating mental health and addiction in carceral settings.

“More than 10 million people are incarcerated every year in the United States and an astonishing 45 percent of Americans have a family member who has been jailed or imprisoned,” write AHSG co-chairs Kathleen Sebelius and William Frist.

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About the Author

Najaf Ahmad

Najaf Ahmad is senior managing editor of the Culture of Health Blog where she highlights perspectives about how the Foundation is advancing health equity in communities across the nation.