Igniting Hope Conferecne poster.

The focus of Igniting Hope 2022 is “Advocating in a New Reality: Breaking Barriers, Maintaining Resilience and Reconstructing a Community of Care.”

Health Disparities Conference Can Aid Community Healing

Published July 27, 2022

story by ellen goldbaum

An annual conference that has received national attention for its work addressing the social determinants of health is being seen this year as one important way for the community to heal and move forward after the devastating, racially motivated mass shooting of May 14.

“It is so important for us as faculty and students to learn from the community firsthand about the root causes of health disparities to guide our work in these areas. ”
SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine and director of UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute

The focus of Igniting Hope 2022, “Advocating in a New Reality: Breaking Barriers, Maintaining Resilience and Reconstructing a Community of Care,” will take place on Aug. 13 in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and on Zoom. Registration is at buffalohealthequity.org.

The conference is free and open to the public. It is being funded, in part, by the National Center for Advancing Translational Science of the National Institutes of Health.

‘We Must Channel Our Response to This Trauma’

Timothy F. Murphy MD; Department of Medicine SUNY Distinguished Professor; Senior Associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Research; Research Focus; Infectious Disease; Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; University at Buffalo 2017.

Timothy F. Murphy, MD

“We must channel our response to this trauma,” said Timothy F. Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine, in a message he wrote to members of UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute, which he directs.

“We must strengthen our resolve to solve the underlying systemic problems that are directly responsible for the targeting of the East Side of Buffalo.”

This year, he and his co-organizers think Igniting Hope can help channel the community’s response to the shooting.

In a message to local organizations, Pastor George F. Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church and co-convener of the African American Health Equity Task Force, one of the organizers, called the conference “a crucial tool we use to raise awareness about health equity.”

“Along with our partner, the University at Buffalo, we have brought national experts to engage in robust dialogue with local community leaders as we work to address the root causes which drive health disparities,” he said. “We are promoting a public dialogue on health equity while advocating for real systems change, which will eliminate race-based health disparities.”

Keynote speakers are:

  • Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, former pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, and founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, which advances food security and food sovereignty by co-creating Black food ecosystems anchored by Black congregations in partnership with Black farmers.
  • Ruth S. Shim, MD, associate dean of diverse and inclusive education, Luke & Grace Kim Professor in Cultural Psychiatry and director of cultural psychiatry, University of California, Davis, and co-author of Social (In)Justice and Mental Health. Her research focuses on mental health disparities and inequities.
  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author, activist, Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University MacArthur Foundation Fellow and author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership.” Taylor writes and speaks on Black politics, social movements and racial inequality in the U.S.

Breakout sessions will focus on mental health; housing and economic development; food and nutrition; and senior services.

Since its first year, and even during the years of the pandemic when it was all-virtual, the conference has attracted approximately 300 attendees, from community organizations and the public as well as university faculty, staff and students.

“When you look at who attends, it’s half community members and half university members, that is special and incredible,” said Murphy, who is also director of UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “It is so important for us as faculty and students to learn from the community firsthand about the root causes of health disparities to guide our work in these areas.”

The idea for the conference stemmed from a collaboration that began when Jacobs School faculty began attending meetings of the African American Health Equity Task Force around the time that UB was awarded a $15 million Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Institutes of Health in 2015.

Vision of CTSA Guided by the Community

“The vision of the CTSA is, ultimately, to improve the health of the community,” said Murphy. A free, public conference was envisioned as a way for community members, students, faculty and university and community leaders to come together to begin to address Buffalo’s social determinants of health. The Jacobs School agreed to support the conference at no cost to the organizers.

In a paper published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science in May, UB faculty from four schools and Buffalo community leaders described how even the planning process for the first conference became a space where important community interactions that had never happened before began to take place.

“The planning of the conference kept us meeting every month and coming together every month,” said Murphy. “The most important thing that the conference did was, it created awareness in the community about these problems, which was the first step toward addressing these problems.”

While conference organizers emphasize that by itself, a community gathering is just one piece of the universe of change that is needed to eliminate health disparities, they also recognize that some important first steps have been taken.

In addition to nationally known and respected experts on health disparities who were keynote speakers, a critical feature is the series of breakout sessions that take place on topics ranging from food insecurity to mental health to inequities in the criminal justice system.

Persistent Targeting of Black Drivers

Now in its fifth year, the conference is seen as having contributed to several positive developments. For example, a working group on fines and fees that formed out of the first conference partnered with the Western New York Law Center to address the problem of the city’s disparate traffic ticketing that targeted Black drivers on the East Side.  

The group found that between 2015 and 2019, predominantly Black East Side neighborhoods saw a 75% increase in traffic stops compared to 32% and 34% increases in predominantly white neighborhoods in South Buffalo and North Buffalo, respectively. When drivers can’t pay the traffic tickets, their licenses are suspended, a practice that creates a cycle of debt and punishment that especially burdens low-income communities of color.

The working group co-hosted “community conversations” that raised awareness, attracting significant media coverage. The work eventually led to New York State legislation that passed in 2020 to reform the law related to drivers’ license suspension; changes in traffic stop practices were implemented in 2021.

A breakout group on food insecurity became involved with a food pantry at a local church and rapidly mobilized resources, especially during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It continues to address chronic food insecurity, and the acute issues that arose after the mass shooting this year.

A mental health working group held special sessions virtually during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to raise awareness in the community about available resources. 

And since the first conference was held in 2018, three new entities in the community aimed at addressing health disparities have been launched as a result: the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute and the Erie County Office for Health Equity.

Murphy and his co-organizers like to think of the conference as a catalyst for change in the community.

“When we first started meeting in 2015, there was a blunt recognition of the disparities in Buffalo that were not being addressed, that the community was not aware of and wasn’t broadly committed to dealing with,” he said. “The biggest thing the conference has done is it has created awareness in the community, the university and among the city’s leaders. The conference is a framework for solutions.”