University of Pennsylvania Professor Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, assumed the office of APHA president-elect at the APHA Annual Meeting in Boston this month. Having been elected by vote of the APHA Governing Council, Kumanyika will serve one year prior to becoming the Association’s president.

A long-time APHA member, Kumanyika sees the new APHA in a light she’s not seen before. In a Q&A with Public Health Newswire, Kumanyika tells us about her work, why she’s so hopeful about the future public health workforce and why the new APHA will lead to greater impact for health.


Shiriki Kumanyika

Shiriki Kumanyika became APHA president-elect during the APHA Annual Meeting this month in Boston.

Q: You’ve been an APHA member since 1976 and have “never seen more change in the organization” than at this year’s Annual Meeting in Boston. What changes did you witness?

The roll out of the “new APHA” in Boston gave me a sense that a threshold has been crossed towards a critical and exciting change in the organization, one that pulls together updated themes and globalized thinking and approaches. APHA has adopted a stance in recent years around a stronger, more cohesive emphasis on action. That message came through loud and clear.  APHA is becoming more agile, more goal oriented and more intent in leading locally and worldwide with our core values.  We are going to be more convincing about the importance of a focus on prevention and wellness, while making better use of scientific evidence and creating a greater sense of urgency around health equity issues. I think that, over time, this new positioning in the public arena will really enhance the sense of community among our thousands of diverse members, attract more members and align our combined efforts for greater overall impact.  This tone of the new APHA resonates well with my own personal mission.  I will certainly do my best to exemplify this new organizational culture.

Q: During your career, you’ve done extraordinary work around nutrition and obesity prevention, especially in African-American communities. What are the greatest opportunities for improving health in this area?

Our greatest opportunities in this area are also among our greatest challenges.  We have to accelerate our efforts to drive changes through influencing some big picture leverage points regarding the availability of healthy options for eating and physical activity.  Food is a particularly complex area; we can’t treat it like tobacco and tell people to avoid it altogether.  The changes we need are more complicated and will have huge implications across the spectrum from agriculture to environmental sustainability. We have to make both a public health case and a business case for a healthier food supply and for marketing healthier foods and beverages.  We have a tremendous opportunity to make progress that will change the food and health landscape for the population at large if we do our health diplomacy well.  Close to my own heart, we can foster health equity with targeted efforts related to food in black communities. There is too much unhealthy food available in the average black community—more relative to other communities. Black children, teens and families are bombarded with above average levels of advertising and promotion for unhealthy food.

Q: Tell us about your work as professor at the University of Pennsylvania. What excites you most about the work of your current MPH candidates?

When I look at the diverse interests and backgrounds of our MPH students I see the potential to bring our vision of health-in-all-policies coming to life.  Our MPH program is particularly interdisciplinary in that we are university-wide and involve faculty and students from most of Penn’s 12 schools.  We have lots of joint degree programs with other master’s or PhD programs.  Having founded Penn’s MPH program with this specific model in mind, I see this “public health without walls” as a dream come true.  I am also amazed at the energy and intensity of the current student body in their desire to pursue public health careers and issues.  This may be typical of the current wave of public health students generally.  It bodes very well for the character our future workforce.

Q: The theme of APHA’s 2014 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, “Healthography: How where you live affects your health and well-being,” closely resembles your work in addressing social determinants of health. How can public health help change this paradigm?

We have impressive tools for measuring objective features of environments that affect health and can use them to chart a course for change. Efforts to address the obesity epidemic have broadened the awareness and use of these tools and contributed to the development of new software and metrics as well as new insights about how community conditions affect health.  I see two main types of challenges.  One set of challenges relates to changing environments, largely through changing policies, and then ensuring that the policies are well implemented. That will require putting in time and talent to work effectively with the entities, including government and private industry, that have the ability and authority to change environments and finding allies whose goals and needs for change are compatible with ours. The other challenges relate to mobilizing and empowering communities to make their voices heard, to participate in the change process and to help sustain gains that are made.  I think we in public health underestimate the community mobilization aspects while focusing a lot on the policy end.  Both are critical and should be implemented in a complementary fashion.