case study

Sparking a Conversation On Racism and Health

Sarah Sholes/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The Challenge 

For decades, racial inequity was known as a social problem. But what haven’t received as much attention are the health consequences. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and Harvard public health researcher David Williams partnered with Burness to change that. Dr. Williams’ science-based research explores how and why race—in and of itself—matters when it comes to people’s health. As the author of more than 400 scientific papers, Dr. Williams has shown that people of color, on average, have worse health outcomes, less access to health- care, lower quality of care and higher levels of traditional stressors. RWJF, as part of its Culture of Health initiative, wants to elevate Dr. Williams’ voice and more than 20 years of research to show causes of and solutions to racial health inequities affecting people of color in the United States.

Our Approach 

Burness worked with David Williams and RWJF to develop messages that paired RWJF’s Culture of Health messaging with conclusions from Dr. Williams’ research. We then organized deskside meetings for Dr. Williams with leaders at prominent media, policy and nonprofit organizations. In addition, we co-authored and published opinion pieces with experts in other fields such as law enforcement, medical education and philanthropy to reinforce our messages. 

Results and Impact 

Dr. Williams’s deskside meetings generated a steady stream of public activity, including on-message opinion pieces in U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, and STAT news; Facebook Live events with the Washington Post and USA Today; news articles in Vox, Colorlines and the Harvard Gazette; an hour-and-half briefing for 18 NPR reporters and producers; and close to 20 other meetings with mainstream influencers in policy, media and the nonprofit world. Dr. Williams has become a critical resource for health reporters. His meetings and research led to an invitation to speak at TEDMED on the social determinants of health. He also served as keynote speaker at Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute’s symposium, where he spoke to a crowd of more than 400 people on the connection between race, racism and health.

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