December 5, 2022

Fawn Rhodes accepts her award.

Fawn Rhodes accepts her award.

Fawn Rhodes is a student in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s online Master of Public Health (MPH@UNC) program. In January 2022, she accepted a job as the advancing equity coordinator with New Hanover County Health and Human Services — and, in August, she was promoted to the newly created position of public health equity coordinator.

When the New Hanover County Office of Diversity and Equity hosted its second annual Equity Awards Gala earlier this year, Rhodes and 10 other residents were recognized for their dedication to expanding and elevating equity and diversity throughout the community.

Rhodes received a Health Equity Award for her work in the new role, which she describes as “a continuation of efforts that began during the pandemic, [which] shined a light on the inequities and disparities within historically marginalized populations in New Hanover County.”

New Hanover — home to the city of Wilmington — is the second-smallest North Carolina county in land area, but one of the most populous.

According to Rhodes, historical events have played a role in ongoing health disparities in the county. She notes that between 1860 and 1900, Black Americans represented 55% of New Hanover County’s population. Following the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, however, in which between 60 and 300 Black Wilmingtonians were murdered and more than 2,000 Black individuals fled the county, the Black population had dropped to 10% by 1920.

One hundred years later, 13% of the county’s population identifies as Black or African American. Of that group, 34% live in poverty and 11.6% are uninsured.

At a meeting in August 2022, Rhodes told county commissioners that local underserved communities — those with low incomes who are uninsured or under-insured — experience higher rates of “chronic illness, morbidity, mortality, violence and epigenetic trauma (a result of systemic and structural racism.)”

She outlined the need to rebuild the public’s trust in health care while reducing barriers to access, such as lack of transportation and childcare. Her goal is to reduce health inequities in part through increased collaboration with community partners like the Food Bank of North Carolina and the Wilmington Housing Authority.

“Trust is a big factor,” she says. “Sadly, systematic racism is still alive and well in 2022. As public health leaders, it should be our charge to address this issue by being intentional and proactive about using results-based approaches to reduce and eliminate health disparities and inequities. I intend to strengthen and build trusting relationships with our community while I seek funding and a team to establish an official Health Equity Division within New Hanover County Health and Human Services.”

Read an interview with Fawn Rhodes in WILMA magazine.

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