Reducing Health Disparities Through Collective Action

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(Photo: Mihae Jung)

California Forward is committed to advancing policy intersections that create a more inclusive and sustainable California where all people can prosper. To move this forward, we must address the racial and geographic inequities that have been exacerbated by a public health and economic crisis, and we must answer the call to dismantle structural racism. The Voices of Shared Prosperity series amplifies the stories of Californians who are committing their time and talent to solutions that embrace equity, the environment, and the economy.

“At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all knew at California Pan-Ethnic Health Network that racial disparities were going to be an issue. And we knew that COVID-19 would just show the health disparities that were already there,” said Mihae Jung, community advocacy director at CPEHN. Jung leads the organization’s partner mobilization efforts, which include more than 40 ally organizations throughout the state.

CPEHN, which was initially formed in response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, prioritizes health equity and ethnic solidarity through collaborative action. Its partnerships were formed through the leadership of executive directors from Asian Pacific Islander, Black, Latino and Native American health organizations to find a space of intersection and a path forward in the wake of racial tension.

Jung highlights that language barriers, vigilance and erasure of culture impact each of the communities they serve differently. “The struggle is real for each of the communities and the struggle is so different and the reason for the challenges is so different. So, a lot of our effort is really trying to find the common ground.”

Jung, a staunch mental health advocate, points to the shared barriers of culturally competent healthcare as the point of intersection.

“A successful community is a healthy and empowered community. [Healthy communities] don’t have to worry about basic needs, like putting food on the table, childcare for your kids, the schools your kid attends, or healthcare access,” she added.

In 2019, more than one in three Californians, over 3.8 million families or 37% of the state’s population, do not earn sufficient income to meet basic needs according to the United Way Real Cost of Living Measure.

Although today, she is a leader in one of the state’s most influential health equity organizations, her path to this point was nothing like she would have imagined. Jung immigrated with her mother to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. She says the transition wasn’t easy and they moved around a lot but the diversity of cultural experiences and the appreciation of stories and backgrounds led her to earn her bachelor’s degree in film and media studies.

Her career began to shift when she was laid-off in 2009 during the Great Recession, leading her to travel to Peru and work with NGOs and social workers to serve communities there.

The Great Recession marked California’s highest unemployment rate and nationwide financial instability since the Great Depression in the 1930’s.

When she returned to the U.S., she began pursuing master’s degree in social work and planned to become a therapist. Things changed after she took a class on poverty and inequality and began to think about how to make broad impacts.

“This is so structural, and it opened my eyes to a different type of problem definition. It pulled everything to a macro-level. I really began to look at things like systemic challenges,” she recalled.

Jung credits an internship with Washington State Representative Tina Orwall as a seminal moment in her career “I never had access to this growing up as an immigrant. I didn’t even know that this is something you can do. I found a whole new level of empowerment in that internship.”

In alignment with her work for health equity, Jung has provided specific recommendations for the statewide change, including:

  • Better agency department collaboration and improved coordination to reduce health disparities. Governments can’t be siloed. If a room contains the same players as before, then there’s more that can be done to bring new people into the process. Departments need to work better together to address the current racial and geographic inequalities that impact the quality of care for communities.
  • Improving existing stakeholder processes. Communities of color and the people who are doing the work must have a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion. There are a lot of opportunities to provide recommendations about programs and services for public healthcare systems and it’s important to work with the communities to get their feedback. More agencies should see the communities they serve as partners and consult with them as they are developing programs.

Jung’s recommendations don’t end with the state, calling for advocates to actively work against perpetuating trauma. Her professional emphasis on mental wellness is the foundation of her position. She is keenly aware of the destructive impacts of vigilance, scarcity mindset and individualistic thinking on social progress. “Part of my role is making sure we are mobilizing and making sure that we are sharing opportunities and sharing power too.”

With no end in sight, she is doing just that.

The Voices of Shared Prosperity stories will be shared in advance of the 2020 California Economic Summit, taking place on December 3-4.


Amber Bolden

All stories by: Amber Bolden