“Who Deserves a Healthy Life?”

Who Deserves a Healthy Life?” A community conversation and emerging research study led by former UCHI fellow

Last spring, a leading U.S. health foundation approached UConn medical anthropologist Sarah Willen, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, former UCHI Fellow, and Director of the Research Program on Global Health and Human Rights at the Human Rights Institute (HRI), to learn more about her work on “health-related deservingness” – the crucial but often unspoken question of “who deserves what, and why” in the health domain.

Since then, Willen has assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Cleveland State University, Trinity College, the University of South Florida, Brown University, and Case Western Reserve University to explore this question in the contemporary United States. The two-phase, collaborative study they have developed hinges on two linked concepts: individuals’ (1) sense of deservingness, defined as the experience of feeling valued in and by society, and (2) deservingness assessments, defined as their evaluations of what different social groups, including their own, do or do not deserve in the health domain. The team plans to investigate how Americans from diverse backgrounds conceptualize health-related deservingness; how those conceptions can change; and how such changes might affect individuals’ willingness to take concrete action to promote health equity.

In the first study phase, the team plans to “capitaliz[e] on an available opportunity to generate new knowledge that can inform policy intervention” (Williams & Purdie Vaughns 2016: 640) by studying a multi-sectoral, county-wide health equity initiative called Health Improvement Partnership-Cuyahoga (henceforth HIP-Cuyahoga) that is currently underway in the county that encompasses Cleveland, Ohio.

In January 2017, with support from CSU along with UConn’s Humanities Institute, Human Rights Institute, and the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Prevention (InCHIP), Willen and her colleagues convened in Cleveland for a two-day planning workshop. Yet one string was attached: the group needed to hold a public event of some sort.

Since they were meeting for the first time, it seemed premature to hold a public event casting the researchers as experts. Instead, they took the somewhat unusual step of partnering with HIP-Cuyahoga and the county-wide Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) to sponsor and co-facilitate a community conversation about racism and health inequity at the community center of a local public housing community on the evening before their workshop.

Designed as a screening and discussion of clips from the documentary “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?,” the event attracted an audience of over 60 participants, including about 45 community residents, 10 local public health leaders, and the research team. For community members, the evening provided an opportunity to activate the community’s Social Justice Subcommittee, a healthy meal from a local African American-owned café, and a lively conversation about racism, inequality, and the moral obligations involved in community based research. For the research team, the event also offered an illuminating window onto Cleveland and HIP-Cuyahoga – and a powerful prelude to their collaborative work over the next two days. Their research proposal has now been submitted and, if funded, the study will launch in mid-2017.

Sponsored by Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, HIP-Cuyahoga, Cleveland State University, and UConn’s Humanities Institute, Human Rights Institute, and Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Prevention (InCHIP).