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MSU’s Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health to expand and strengthen community care

Aron Sousa, Ridgway White, Mona Hanna-Attisha
Harley J. Seeley Photography
Aron Sousa, Ridgway White, Mona Hanna-Attisha

For years, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine researchers in the Division of Public Health have been working with Flint Community Partners to improve the health of the community, improve access to healthcare, reduce health disparities, and advance policies and interventions that aim to eliminate structural racism in healthcare.

And every step of the way the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has been a visionary partner by providing the funding for space and endowed faculty positions.

The support from the Mott Foundation has allowed MSU to invest in public health researchers seeking community minded solutions to tackle issues like the Flint water crisis and the Coronavirus pandemic. Over the past six years, MSU's Division of Public Health has brought in more than 115 million in federal research funding for these efforts. Now the university is creating its first fully philanthropically-named department in recognition of this long-term support as MSU seeks to expand its efforts to recruit top talent. The expanded academic unit in Flint will allow for significant growth in faculty as well as increased community programming.

The Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health is the first named department at Michigan State University. The Mott Foundation granted $25 million to expand the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine's Public Health presence in Flint about one year ago. The grants created an endowed fund to attract and retain public health faculty, increase academic research, and boost community partnerships. As a result, the public health division has grown and was recently elevated to a department. The naming of the department is in recognition of the Mott Foundation's transformational support.

Here to discuss this are Dr. Aron Sousa, Dean of the College of Human Medicine; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Charles Stewart Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health and founding director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative; and Ridgway White, President and CEO of the Mott Foundation.

Russ White, Aron Sousa, Ridgway White, Mona Hanna-Attisha
Harley J. Seeley Photography
Russ White, Aron Sousa, Ridgway White, Mona Hanna-Attisha

“The college was founded as really the first medical school in the country based on a community focus,” says Sousa. “We have been in our communities for the 60 years or so that the college has been in existence, and that includes Flint. And as we were trying to figure out what to do to better engage with communities and foster better health and healthier communities, public health is really where that kind of rubber hits the road. And our partners in Flint, Hurley Medical Center, McLaren, and the Mott Foundation started putting together this kind of concept of a community-based public health program where we philosophically wanted to be in the community, invite the community into our building, and most importantly, work with the people of Flint as collaborators.”

Sousa talks about what it means to have the name of Charles Stewart Mott on the department and the value and importance of elevating and structuring the faculty and staff into its own department and how that benefits programming in Flint to create impact for the community, the state, and the nation.

“I've had this amazing privilege of traveling all over the country and working in other public health programs and learning about what they do,” says Hanna-Attisha. “There is no other place that does public health or thinks about health as we do. We were born in this really bizarre way. We didn't just say, ‘Hey, we're really smart and we're the university and we're going to come into this community and we're going to fix your problems.’ We sat and we listened, and this was the brainchild of Dean Sousa when he first sought out to build this public health program in Flint. We had community meetings and forums and town halls and surveys, and we literally asked the community, ‘Hey, what do you want us to work on?’ And based on that, the public health programming in Flint was born and has grown and grown, and we've never lost sight of that kind of conception of being community partnered. We are working on issues that our community wants us to work on, and it's more likely to achieve health equity.”

Dr. Mona highlights some of the current research projects taking place in the public health area and about how the naming of the department impacts the work of the faculty and researchers.

“If it wasn't for Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and the MSU Department of Public Health, we wouldn't have had the science that was needed to prove that the blood level in the children in Flint was elevated,” White says. “That has had huge ripple effects on all kinds of policy and federal funding for water initiatives on clean, affordable, accessible water for all across the United States.

“MSU has been an amazing partner, a great grantee. The Mott Foundation is only as good as its grantees. We applaud MSU for taking these dollars and maximizing them. We always say ‘nothing about us without us.’ And that rings true to the land grant philosophy of MSU. For the Mott Foundation, that's core to us.”

“In this nation, we spend trillions on healthcare,” Hanna-Attisha continues. “We have built a sickness-based system, but we have failed to really go after those root causes, those root determinants of ill health. And that's what we're trying to do in Flint. We're trying to go upstream and address those root causes so that our hospitals aren't filled with chronic diseases and that our life expectancy isn't 20 years less in Flint than another part of Genesee County. Our Department of Public Health is within the medical school. In so many other places, it is a separate siloed school or department that's not related to the medical school. Having these two kinds of departments or units married together really enables us to train a future workforce of physicians who understand what public health is and can see beyond the patient in front of them and can address these upstream determinants.

In a really short period, we have built awesome. We are doing awesome work in Flint, thanks to the investment and support of the CS Mott Foundation. But really, in some ways, our work is just beginning. So, we look forward to the next few years. We look forward to more partnerships. We look forward to more support, more folks out there listening who say, ‘Hey, I want to invest in this, too.’ Come. We welcome all who want to support our work and who want to work with us.”

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