Innovation Ecosystem

Choosing paths that lead to healthy, vibrant communities

New board chair at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute shares his own personal story why he has become a champion of eliminating public health disparities

Photo by Cat Laine, courtesy of Mark Tracy

Mark Tracy, the new chair of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute.

By Mark Tracy
Posted 3/18/19
The new board chair at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, Mark Tracy, shares his own personal journey as the springboard for his passion for promoting public health policy.
What are the opportunities to replicate and scale up Food on the Move as a regional enterprise? Is there an opportunity to expand the Central Falls High School health clinic model as a way to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy? How will the new express STD screening clinic, with its human-centered design approach, help to reduce the rate of infection? What are the opportunities for collaboration with the Anchor Recovery Community mobile outreach efforts?

Volunteer work within a community framework remains one of the best places to create a sense of engaged “neighborhood” of advocates that can translate into a powerful and effective voice in changing policy simply by channeling the way we interact with people, not online but in person, not on Facebook but in face-to-face activities. That kind of connectedness is the best antidote to social isolation and a feeling of powerlessness.

PROVIDENCE – My father died when I was nine years old. He was born in Brockton, went to Brown and served in the Navy on a destroyer based out of Newport. When my father was 43 years old he went for a walk before work and had a heart attack and died. It was the day before Thanksgiving. My mother had just turned 37.

After my father’s death, my mom found work and we received Social Security benefits that helped keep the heat on during the winter. I am an only child and had no surviving grandparents. My mother was all I had.

She was proud to see me go off to college. Tragedy struck again when she was diagnosed with colon cancer and given months to live. After six months she became very ill and hospice came into our life. What ensued were the four hardest months of my life. On the first day of spring I was home as my mother died, in her bedroom just where she wanted to be.

At 19 years old I sold our house, packed my things and moved to the East Side. That’s how Rhode Island became my home. I graduated from Brown, with a sense of thankfulness and humility knowing things could have gone differently. It’s that awareness I’ve carried with me to this day.

Dealing with the unexpected
My belief in the importance of policy to effect change got me to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and I learned a lot there about how to shape effective solutions to public problems, and how to further my effectiveness as a leader and public servant.

My life taught me in no uncertain terms that the unexpected could strike at any time. I understand that any of us could land in a situation where we need a hand up. That is why I consider myself fortunate to lead the board of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute [RIPHI] – an organization whose sole mission is to eliminate public health disparities in our community.

In Rhode Island as many as 175,000 residents receive supplemental nutrition assistance [or SNAP]. Many recipients of SNAP run out of benefits half way through the month; as a result, they either eat poorly or not at all. RIPHI is addressing this problem through a program called Food on the Move. Under the leadership of the Institute’s executive director, Dr. Amy Nunn, Food on the Move takes the innovative approach of bringing food to the people, rather than people to the food. We do this by running a mobile fresh produce market, which serves subsidized housing communities throughout the state.

I’m proud to say Food on the Move also doubles SNAP benefits through a federal grant, which allows recipients to eat a healthier and fuller diet throughout the month. We believe at RIPHI that this innovative program can and should expand beyond Rhode Island’s borders.

One’s health can change quickly
My personal struggles have also taught me how quickly health can change. RIPHI serves as the leading screener of new HIV cases in the state, an epidemic that should be eliminated in our lifetime with proper education and support from like-minded community health organizations. HIV, however, is not the only public health challenge we face. Other sexually transmitted diseases [STDs] are actually increasing dramatically in recent years.

RIPHI is going to make a deeper investment in public health by opening an express STD screening clinic in Providence in 2019. With a specific outreach to the underserved LGBTQ community, RIPHI is going to create a health care clinic that isn’t scary or intimidating; it will be a place where confidentiality is strictly maintained and the interactions take place with the patient first. This human-centered design approach will be one of the first in the country for an STD screening clinic.

Finally, at RIPHI we are committed to board representation that is diverse and representative of the broader community of Providence and Rhode Island overall. We believe that diversity and inclusion are the keystone to innovation and deep and meaningful engagement with the community. We are a young organization in many ways, but are looking forward to partnering with like-minded organizations and community members.

In order for us to overcome many of our intractable problems, we need to break down barriers and be willing to work collaboratively. If we keep the patients and families who are in need first and foremost, we should never lose sight of what is most important – healthy and vibrant communities.


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