Money can't buy happiness but it can buy good health. Experts discuss health inequity in Memphis.

In the United States, wealth is health.

It takes family, community, and personal wealth to afford high-quality healthcare from birth to death. It takes the same wealths to access healthy food, safe spaces for physical activity, education on health and wellness, education for a good job that provides healthcare, transportation to doctors visits, a hazard-free home, and other key pieces of good health.

Memphis' historically Black communities have the highest rates of chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes alongside the lowest rates of education, employment, homeownership, and other measures known as social determinants of health.

“When we look at these disparities, what we need to recognize is that they are not matters of accident,” said Dr. Kendra Hotz, director of the Rhodes College Health Equity Program.

“They are matters of powerful social forces that were deliberately shaped to reflect the values of our society. We can measure the justice in our society in the bodies of our people.”

Related: “The Pandemics: Decades of environmental racism is making COVID-19 more deadly in Black communities”

In early August, Hotz moderated New Memphis’ second virtual "Celebrate What’s Right" event, which was focused on health equity. 

“In short, health disparities are caused by social inequalities,” said Hotz. “These inequalities [end] downstream in disparate rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, stroke, asthma, and even infant mortality.”

The panelists included: Jenny Bartlett-Prescott with Church Health; Sandra Madubuonwu with Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare; Dr. Alisa Haushalte with UTHSC and the Shelby County Health Department; Lilian Ogari with Baptist College of Health; and Cathy Pope with the Mid-South Food Bank.

Watch the recorded discussion here including its experts’ thoughts on:
  • What individual Memphians can do to support health equity in their city
  • The importance of wrap-around services in managing COVID-19 and overall health equity
  • How agencies, organizations, and officials can build trust where trust has been lost
  • Why the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Joint Task force is a model for addressing all of the city’s disparities
"Celebrate What’s Right" convenes people from diverse professional backgrounds to elevate the work of those professionals and others discussed at the events. It hopes to leave audiences with tangible actions they can take to continue supporting Memphis’ forward evolution.

We know that health inequities exist and reduce quality of life and life expectancy for many Memphians.  

“What do we do about it is the next question,” said Madubuonwu.


The two biggest themes of the panel discussion were the connection between Memphis’ social ills and the need for a collective effort to ensure the city’s good health.

“There’s not a single sector of society or domain of life that isn’t somehow connected with questions of health equity,” said Hotz. 

The panelists agreed that any effective solution to address the city’s biggest challenges must bring together individuals and agencies from education, housing, healthcare, justice, and other areas that are typically siloed. 

“COVID-19 has very quickly brought home the messages that we’re all interconnected,” said Bartlett-Prescott. “My health is very much connected to the health of my neighborhood."

The COVID-19 Joint Task force was spotlighted as a benchmark for getting folks together and getting things done in Memphis.

“We’re all pointed in the same direction trying to control this pandemic in our community,” said Bartlett-Prescott of the task force. “So then it makes me wonder, what if we had a joint task force on education? What if we had a joint task force on housing? What if we had a joint task force on poverty that had this kind of coming together across all segments of Memphis and Shelby County?”


Ogari: “When we’re putting policies in place, we need to think about how does affect a person who doesn’t have the resources to do whatever we’re putting in place.”

Haushalte: “We can all do things individually, but ultimately, we have to change the structures. That is difficult and requires a commitment over time.”

Hotz: “… we have constructed a society in which injustices are borne in the bodies of our people in predictable and terrible ways. The good news is that this is not natural. These disparities don’t result from genetic differences, these disparities were made by us and they reflect our values.”

Bartlett-Prescott: “Right now we put a lot of the burden on hospital systems to address social determinants of health, and they’re frankly not positioned to do it like primary care and sub-specialty care can.”

PRO TIPS: How to Support Health Equity in Memphis

From the panelists and New Memphis, here are a few ways to support health equity.
  • If you see inequity, speak up and take action whether big or small.
  • Support local efforts for living wages and robust public transportation.
  • Donate supplies for healthy households to local organizations. Not sure where to give? Try Sweet Cheeks Diaper Ministry, St. John’s Methodist Church’s "Operation: Swaddling Clothes," Hope House, or Dorothy Day House.
  • Feed your neighbors. Not sure how? Reach out to The Works, Inc., Memphis Tilth, or the Mid-South Food Bank.
  • Support new mothers on their journeys. Reach out to CHOICES Center for Reproductive Health, Birthright of Memphis, Maternal League of Memphis, Agape Child & Family Services, or One by One Ministries.
New Memphis is now prepping for their largest annual event, Exposure. The free, virtual event will give Memphians the chance to meet local organizations and learn how to get involved. It will be held September 1 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Read more and find registration information here:
“Visitors can build a custom experience at the first virtual Exposure event.”
Support for High Ground’s healthy communities coverage is provided in part by New Memphis. New Memphis’ mission is to forge a more prosperous and vital city by developing, activating, and retaining talent and working to inspire and develop engaged, civically responsible leaders. Their work highlights the challenges and opportunities facing Memphis and provides a platform for civic education and engagement.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.