Debra Perez bridged the worlds from her childhood neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey, to the ivy walls of Harvard University. Now an expert on reducing racial disparities in healthcare, she ensures others from neighborhoods like her own have a voice.
A first-generation college graduate, Perez recalls, “I was the only non-white person in a very small group of college-prep students at Trenton High. My tenth grade guidance counselor was the first person to say to me, ‘You can go to college.’ She made the difference in my life. I now have two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. from Harvard. I’m committed to living as an example of what is possible based on where I’ve come from and what I’ve accomplished.”
Perez’s journey was a difficult one. She says, “During my graduate work at Harvard, I often felt, ‘I don’t belong here. They don’t want me here.’ I was confronted with racism in subtle forms everyday. They questioned my intelligence, my pedigree, and whether or not I got in because I was a minority. It was very painful.”
She felt that she continually had to fight battles to address the topic of inequity in health and healthcare. Perez and a colleague approached a professor about incorporating the literature on healthcare disparities.
Perez recalls, “The professor said what many still say today when a brown person suggests more outreach, more diversity, or broader networks—‘make it happen.’” So Debra and her colleague found the materials and the speakers, and put the first session on disparities into the curriculum. Today, health disparities is a central session of that core course.
But Perez believed in possibilities and knew others around campus cared about racial and ethnic disparities in health and healthcare. In 2001, Perez co-chaired Harvard’s first symposium on public health disparities. Some 300 attended from across the country.
Today, as part of the nation’s largest foundation working to improve healthcare, Perez is continuing the conversation. She is a well-known speaker on issues of diversity and disparities in public healthcare. At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), Perez works to strengthen programs through incorporating diverse perspectives at every level. She and her colleagues in Research and Evaluation created New Connections, a program to link first-time grantees to the foundation’s research priorities. In its first annual symposium, the New Connections initiative brought together a network of historically underrepresented researchers, including not only New Connections grantees, but those who had been turned down for funding.
In regards to her personal achievements, Debra says, “I measure success by the people I inspire.” She explains, “I’d like to live an inspiring life—both to myself and others. There’s plenty that can be done in the world, and I really believe all things are possible.”
Perez graduated from Rutgers with a B.A. in Communication. She received a Master's of Arts in Women's Studies from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England where she focused on mental health and the de-institutionalization of women. Following graduation, Perez lived and worked in Spain for several years where she was active with non-governmental organizations, working on women's issues, domestic violence and immigrant issues. Upon her return to the United State, Perez received the National Urban and Rural Fellows award leading to her MPA from Baruch College, where she graduated with honors in 1997. In 1998, she became deputy director for New Jersey Health Initiatives, a program office of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In Health Initiatives, she reviewed 450-500 funding requests and recommended a total of $10 million in grants each year.
In 1999, Debra completed a fellowship with Leadership New Jersey, a statewide program that develops leaders by expanding their knowledge of state issues and honing their skills to build coalitions that can solve statewide problems. In 2000, she entered an interfaculty doctoral program at Harvard University where she received her PhD in Health Policy. While at Harvard, Debra chaired the first and second university-wide symposium on racial and ethnic disparities in health. She is the recipient of a five-year grant in Health Policy and Research from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Her dissertation was on cultural correlates of barriers to healthcare among Latinos, the prevalence of discrimination among Latinos and Latino health policy preferences
Latino Health and National Health Reform
By 2050, the U.S. Latino population, already the nation’s largest minority group, will triple in size and will account for most of the population growth in the U.S. over the next four decades. Hispanics will make up almost three out of every 10 people in the U.S. by 2050.
This growth will have important implications for health care in the U.S., and for national health reform. Perez can address the following and related questions: What health concerns do Latinos have? What diseases affect Hispanics disproportionately and what special prevention efforts are needed for this community? Will we have enough health professionals who are culturally competent to care for Latinos? How should national health reform proposals address the health needs of Hispanics? Who should pay for the health care of undocumented immigrants who lack health coverage?
Professional Advancement – How to Master It
Perez discusses her career and experiences, the value of her education, and offers career advancement advice, particularly in the public and nonprofit sectors. A lively question and answer session with the audience follows.
New Connections: recruiting, training and seeding professional opportunities for scholars from diverse backgrounds
When researchers and scholars from vastly different experiences come together to tackle life's most pressing problems, better solutions naturally emerge. That's the principle on which Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created New Connections.
New Connections builds and sustains a diverse pool of research talent by recruiting, training, and seeding professional opportunities to emerging scholars who hail from populations that are underrepresented in research activities.
"New Connections' efforts to expand diversity are geared at creating new best practices institution-wide and among sister foundations and research centers," says RWJF Senior Program Officer Debra Joy Pérez. "We also hope to inspire other foundations and research centers to initiate their own innovations."
New Connections provides up to 16 $50,000-$55,000 grants per year to support experienced and junior investigators. To date, New Connections has awarded over $1.5M in grants to 40 early- and mid-career scholars.