Q&A with Shanise Owens: Championing health equity at home, school, and within communities


When Shanise Owens was little, her mother would say to her, “If you don’t do it at home first, then how can I trust that you will do it in public?”

This saying still holds true for Owens, who is a doctoral student of Health Systems and Population Health at the University of Washington School of Public Health (SPH). Owens serves on several equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives and committees, and believes that championing health equity in our communities starts with prioritizing EDI work within the School.

“By prioritizing EDI, we create a learning environment that reflects the diverse communities we serve,” said Owens. “We equip our students with the skills and values needed to tackle health inequities head-on. Then, we can begin to build trust and foster collaboration with communities, which are essential ingredients for co-creating true health equity.”

In this Q&A, Owens describes her research on the impact of redlining on wealth, employment, and health outcomes, her passion for EDI work, and advice for public health students.

What first drew you to public health and why do you enjoy studying it?

My journey into public health was sparked by a desire to understand the systemic roots of health inequities. I began my career as a child and adolescent therapist, but as I delved into the intricacies of working in community mental health and autism research, my curiosity to better understand the stories I was hearing about the inability for certain families to access mental health treatment made me yearn for a broader lens. This led me to seek the guidance of my mentor Dr. Daniel Geschwind, a UCLA professor. His encouragement to further my graduate studies and refine my research methodology skills proved pivotal in shaping my career trajectory.

Through delving deeper into health systems and learning to evaluate policies impacting population health, my perspective shifted beyond individual struggles. I began to grasp the larger picture — the intricate domestic and global public health systems shaping mental health and health care delivery, the profound influence of social and economic factors on health outcomes, and the inequities in access to quality care across communities.

Why did you decide to come to the UW SPH for graduate school?

Choosing UW SPH for my graduate studies was sort of a strategic move fueled by its reputation as a top-tier academic and public health institution. Knowing I would be exposing myself to rigorous research methods training, while also having the opportunity to engage with top leaders in the field drew me from Washington, D.C. to Seattle. It was not just about getting a degree, I wanted to attend a school where I could immerse myself in a community that epitomizes excellence in public health research.

Tell us about your research. What impact do you hope it will have?

My research investigates the generational impact of redlining, a historically discriminatory practice on wealth, employment quality, and subsequent disparities in obesity outcomes across three generations.

Imagine a family tree, but instead of lush branches bursting with prosperity, you see stunted limbs, weighed down by limited wealth, job insecurity, and the burden of obesity. That's the grim reality for communities ravaged by redlining.

My work aims to better understand how a racially discriminatory policy weaves its way into the very fabric of families, and thus communities, impacting wealth, job quality and body mass index. Additionally, I use causal inference methods to rigorously explore the mechanisms that may contribute to generational inequities in important social and economic determinants of health.

In terms of impact, I aim to shine a spotlight on the undeniable truth; discriminatory policies cast a long, harmful shadow, and their deleterious consequences resonate across generations. By exposing these causal links, I hope to empower communities, policymakers, and all of us to work toward restorative justice and pave the way for a more equitable future.

What do you wish the general public knew about your area of work that might be misunderstood or not talked about enough?

My research isn’t unveiling a story that is unknown; instead, the purpose of my work is to amplify a truth we tend to ignore — that the scars of injustice run deep and are etched into the health outcomes across generations. We see and talk about health disparities as if they are some random misfortunes. My work delves into the historical baggage this country often tries to hide, the scars of discriminatory policies that are embedded into the very foundation of our society and continue to haunt communities by shaping health outcomes in profound ways.

To rectify these injustices, we must begin to confront the root causes and acknowledge that often the disparities we observe in population health are not accidents. I hope my research helps to shape the public conversation around health equity to look beyond individual choices and into the very fabric of our society. We need to truly see and understand history not as a dusty relic, but as a living force that, if not addressed and ameliorated, will continue to shape the lives of present and future generations.

You are involved with several EDI committees and initiatives at the School. Why is this work important for the School to prioritize?

When I was younger my mother would heavily emphasize the importance of minding my manners at home, and she would say, “if you don’t do it at home first, then how can I trust that you will do it in public?”

I think this rings true also for the work we do in public health. We can't champion health equity in communities if we don't embody it within our own walls. That's why my involvement in EDI committees and initiatives goes beyond my personal passion; it's a strategic imperative. By integrating EDI principles into our everyday interactions, teaching and research, we ensure our actions align with our mission. It's not just about doing good work, it's about how we do that work. By prioritizing EDI, we create a learning environment that reflects the diverse communities we serve. We equip our students with the skills and values needed to tackle health disparities head-on. Then, we can begin to build trust and foster collaboration with communities, which are essential ingredients for co-creating true health equity.

To me, honoring diversity, championing equity, and promoting inclusion isn't a peripheral concern; it's the very soul of our mission. It's the bridge that connects our values to our impact. It embodies the unwavering commitment to ensuring that our pursuit of a healthier world starts right here, at home, at UW SPH.

What is one piece of advice that you have for new public health students or one thing you wish you knew before beginning your public health studies?

My biggest advice to public health students is to find what ignited your passion for creating a healthier world and make that your north star. The long road to completing a degree, in particular a Ph.D., consumes a lot of time, energy and resources.

There have been several occasions where I found myself questioning why I was working to earn a Ph.D. in the first place. However, in order to truly impact public health, I believe you must anchor yourself in your values. So, when the road gets tough and questions arise (and they always do), reconnect with the underlying reasons that are driving your pursuit in public health. Hopefully this purpose will resonate beyond completing tasks to finish a degree, and instead remind you why you are in public health in the first place.

Also, it is important to cultivate a community. During my turbulent times, my peers and mentors at SPH truly became my anchor and have been a crucial part of maintaining my mental health and resilience. Public health is not a solitary journey; it is a collective effort and always requires a supportive community.

What interests do you have outside of (or related to) public health? Any extracurricular activities?

Two years ago, I was seeking a place to take my mind off the demands of my Ph.D. work, and I found myself drawn to the Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) on South Lake Union. Volunteering there turned out to be more than a stress reliever, I also learned about a whole new world of wooden boats. Last summer, I mastered a new skill — sailing! I have forged new connections and built a community that encourages and pushes me to step outside of my comfort zone.

My experience at CWB has become an integral part of my life, even though I still struggle with balancing work and personal time. My time volunteering offers me a counterbalance to the academic grind of completing my doctorate. Learn more about CWB here.