State of health

Reno-Sparks NAACP hosts new annual symposium to discuss health care

Reno-Sparks NAACP Health Committee Chair Janet Serial discussed the organization’s various health care initiatives.

Reno-Sparks NAACP Health Committee Chair Janet Serial discussed the organization’s various health care initiatives.


On Saturday, Feb. 15, the Reno-Sparks branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its first annual African American Health and Environmental Justice Symposium at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The event brought together a diverse group of speakers who discussed topics ranging from health care workforce diversity to Alzheimer's Disease and dementia in the black community and disproportionate impact of environmental injustice and climate change on communities of color.

After opening remarks from Reno-Sparks NAACP Second Vice-President Patricia Gallimore, the branch's health committee chair, Janet Serial, took the stage to discuss the organization's national health initiatives and how they're being pursued locally. These initiatives include HIV and AIDS education and prevention, tobacco prevention, child health and wellness, and chronic disease prevention and management.

After discussing the branch's work in these four areas, Serial told the audience that the point of the symposium was to spark broader community engagement in those issues through work with local black faith-based organizations and participating agencies.

“We will be spinning up campaigns,” she said. “The goal of this symposium is not just to come, gather, eat and leave. … This symposium is meant to be a call to action.”

But with a late start, an absent keynote speaker who was supposed to discuss the 2020 U.S. Census, and turnout relatively low compared to other NAACP events, some in attendance expressed frustration.

“I don't see enough of the community here, and that is very upsetting to me—because we should be out advocating,” said NAACP member Quilistine Washington-Walker. “Churches—and I'm upset with us—because churches should be announcing these things so we know what's going on in the community. … It's up to us to be advocates for our own people. Come on. Wake up, please.”

However, the intimate crowd size did allow time for attendees to ask questions of the speakers, who gave presentations and also participated in panel discussions—and also allowed time for speakers to delve into the specifics of what their organizations do.

Speaking up

First up among the speakers was Andrea Gregg, the executive director of the High Sierra Area Health Education Center, a federally and state funded 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works with under-served and rural populations in Nevada—working in collaboration with the UNR School of Medicine and the Office of Statewide Initiatives. The organization has staff based in Las Vegas, Reno and Elko and serves other rural counties as well.

Its goal, Gregg explained, is to “increase diversity among health professionals, broaden the distribution of the health care workforce” and “enhance quality care and improve heath care delivery, focusing on rural and under-served populations” through educational programs that target K-12 as well as undergraduate and graduate-level college students.

“We develop programs that cultivate this idea of pipelines for health care,” Gregg said.

The programs include a “Healthcare Heroes Camp” with curriculum that can be tailored for kids as young as third to fifth grade or fifth to eighth and covers teaching kids about the body, various career paths they can pursue in health care and hands-on engagement in a range of activities dissection to orthopedic casting and audiology screening.

“Through these targeted programs, it's our hope that what we're doing is really inspiring a young audience of students to get engaged in health care careers, get involved and recognize the benefits of being a health care champion in their communities—and then doing our part to really fulfill them and give them unique experiences so that they can help fill the state's workforce needs,” Gregg said.

The programs—from those for the youngest participants to the college-level—also focus on teaching culturally competent care.

“So we're talking about these ideas of adversity and diversity, cultural competency and implicit bias,” Gregg said. “So, what we do is we prepare and train aspiring health care professionals who are culturally responsive and are equipped to provide quality care in a multi-cultural setting.”

This topic was revisited by multiple speakers during the day, including Tina Dortch, program manager for the Nevada Office of Minority Health and Equity, who took part in a three-person panel discussion on Alzheimer's Disease and dementia in the African American community alongside Denise Hund of the Alzheimer's Association and Heather Haslmen of UNR's Sandford Center for Aging.

According to information from the Alzheimer's Association, African Americans are about two times more likely than white Americans to develop Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia—but they're less likely to have a diagnosis of the condition and are typically diagnosed once in later stages of the disease. One factor believed to contribute to this problem is that black patients often report having less respectful, and thus less productive, interactions with their health care providers—and panel moderator, Sandford Center Director Dr. Peter Reed, asked Dortch how health care providers might remedy these issues in order to get more information about Alzheimer's and its contributing factors to the black community.

Dortch's answer returned the symposium to the theme of culturally competent care. Physicians and other health care providers, she said, need to consider that patients—whether they're black or a person of any other race—may bring cultural beliefs about health care, from home remedies to negative expectations about how they'll be treated. To overcome it, she said she recommends health care workers follow the steps enumerated in an acronym she called “AWARE.”

“Accept someone's behavior without holding them in judgment using yourself as a barometer,” she said. “Wonder what does the behavior that you're seeing—what does it mean? … Ask what it means. If you have a non-compliant patient or a patient who is using other means than those you recommended, ask if there's a reason or a rationale for that. … Research. Before a patient presents in the office, it does not hurt to do a bit of research about the culture. … And then, lastly, the ‘e.' Only after you've had this dialogue as a practitioner, should you then explain what the behavior is that you're hoping to achieve from this interaction. Only then should you start explaining what the course of care will be.”

Throughout the day, speakers reiterated to symposium participants that the goal of the event was to spark a call to action among local NAACP members. Speakers left informational handouts and their business cards at tables around the room and encouraged attendees to reach out with ideas, opinions and concerns. According to Gallimore, between now and the next annual summit, the Reno-Sparks NAACP branch and its members will be busy “getting out into the community, getting to know people” and getting to know their health care needs and goals.

Those who are interested in learning more about how they can get involved are advised to visit