Rhea Jayaswal and Callia Cox support systemic solutions to inequities — in part by co-chairing the 2023 Minority Health Conference.
What’s your role in public health?
Rhea: I’m an undergraduate senior studying public health and nutrition, with a passion for food policy and health equity. Callia and I are co-chairing the 44th annual Minority Health Conference at the Gillings School. It’s the largest and longest-running student-led health conference in the United States. We bring together students, academics, practitioners and advocates for health equity.
Callia: I’m a Master of Public Health student in the nutrition and dietetics program, which is preparing me to become a registered dietitian. My role as a student is to learn as much as possible and challenge the status quo. At Gillings, I’ve repeatedly been invited to ask hard questions and demand rigor around equity issues.
It feels like there’s been a recent paradigm shift in which the younger generation is called to challenge established experts by prioritizing innovation alongside the evidence base. I’ve built my analytical skills and become more thoughtful as a result of being encouraged to push limits and challenge the very system I’m learning within.
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
Rhea: The Minority Health Conference focuses on research and advocacy that advances health equity.
This year’s theme is “Practicing Health as a Human Right: Policy, Ethics and the Law.” Many health disparities stem from racist and discriminatory policies that are deeply embedded in our laws, and therefore require legal and policy solutions.
Personally, I’m interested in food systems, policy and health equity.
There is an urgent need to align food and health systems with human rights principles. Food insecurity, obesity and chronic diet-related diseases are all disproportionately experienced by people of color and people with lower socioeconomic status. Our food systems are worsening the effects of climate change — my honors thesis examines the link between ultra-processed diets and sustainability. We all have a right to food, health and a healthy environment. There are countless potential solutions to the injustices we see. In my career, I want to advocate for policies that transform food systems and make healthy and sustainable diets available to all.
Callia: I can sum up my focus in two words: Nourishing and nurturing.
Food nourishes the body and soul. Public health nurtures people’s well-being by creating systems that promote health and human rights while preventing harm.
My specific contribution is human-centered design, where the end goal isn’t a publication or one-off intervention but a long-term, iterative relationship with community members that is defined by empathy and co-creation. Grants don’t always support this format, which goes beyond community participatory research, so ones of my hopes is to see changes in how public health work is funded. Human-centered design opens the door to wild brainstorming and makes space for what we know, even before we have evidence published in a peer-reviewed journal.
What brought you to public health?
Rhea: I started volunteering with a community garden in high school. It was designed for families with lower incomes and my role was to give healthy cooking lessons to the kids. Since then, I’ve worked with several food insecurity organizations, such as food banks, elementary schools, a food council and a federal advocacy organization. The people I’ve worked with have all taught me that nutrition insecurity and health disparities are systemic, and they require population level solutions. Public health has helped me build the necessary toolkit to research, advocate for and implement these solutions.
Callia: Ever since fifth grade, I knew I would be a dietitian! I had to do a project on childhood obesity that involved interviewing a dietitian and I became set on that track as soon as I talked with her. I got a dietetics degree in undergrad and then took an AmeriCorps position in food security — but, by then, COVID had arrived.
I ended up seeing a huge range of public health in action, from epidemiology and HIV/STD prevention to interventions linked with housing, crime and maternal mortality. Everything always had some kind of tie back to food and hunger. That’s when I realized in order to effectively help people eat better, I had to gain the skills to figure out each individual’s top priority. Someone worrying about eviction just can’t focus on getting more vegetables in their diet.
Public health is a rapidly shifting field. Can you describe a time where you have pivoted?
Rhea: We started brainstorming the theme for this year’s Minority Health Conference in June 2022. We both worked on last year’s conference as planning co-coordinators, and we knew we wanted a theme for this year that focused on the social determinants of health: socioeconomic status, education, racism and more.
At the time, the news had just come out about the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. We agreed that we wanted a conference with space to discuss the ramifications of this decision — particularly for women, girls and birthing people of color. From there, this year’s theme was born, centered on human rights. Our planning committee has been working together since then to put on an incredible conference!
Callia: My dietetic internship really opened my eyes to the richness of clinical practice. Last summer, I spent ten weeks in New Orleans at a Trauma One Hospital, and I pivoted from having little interest in direct patient interactions to deeply valuing those interpersonal experiences. Speaking with people and accompanying them on their journey from entering the hospital to being released — sometimes months later — can definitely inform better program and policy planning. When these patients rejoin the community, I want them to have the resources they need to stay there!
Also, this kind of work is a constant reminder that a patient is a person, not just diagnosis or a case of malnutrition. Often, they land in the hospital not because of their diabetes per se, but due to the influence of other stressors in their lives or a simple lack of information. One patient I worked with was so proud to have picked the spinach at Golden Corral, not knowing it’s actually cooked with a ton of salt and fat. Most people are trying to make healthy choices and they will listen if you learn how to talk the right way.
Who are you when you’re at home?
Rhea: I’m a member of UNC’s figure skating club, even though I’m not good at it! I joined in fall 2021 because I got obsessed while watching the Olympics. There are some members who have competed in international competitions, and then there’s me — I’ve learned to get around the rink without falling, I can bow and I’m working on a spin!
Callia: Well, I’m at school a lot! But away from here, I’m definitely a food enthusiast. You’ll always find me in a restaurant or coffee shop. I also love looking at art, because it illuminates history for me — I feel like art often heralds major culture shifts. So, whether it’s at the Ackland on campus or the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, I’m that person who goes alone so she can read every word on every plaque and take it all in.
A final word on the Minority Health Conference:
Rhea: This is the first conference in three years to be held in-person, so our planning committee members have actually never been able to attend before! We’re all excited to see our hard work come to fruition and to explore reproductive rights, international human rights law and many other topics.
Callia: I’m so thankful to every committee member. We had 50+ students and faculty/staff advisers; we couldn’t have pulled this off without their efforts and dedication. A stellar team makes this job easy.
Read more interviews in The Pivot series.
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