Arts and Ideas festival honors Nunez-Smith as ‘Visionary Leader’

Marcella Nunez-Smith
Marcella Nunez-Smith

Yale’s Marcella Nunez-Smith, a national expert on disparities in healthcare access who is now helping the Biden administration deliver more equitable care and treatment, last week received Visionary Leadership Award from the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven.

Over the past year, few have worked as hard to understand the pandemic’s impact on minoritized communities as Nunez-Smith, associate dean of health equity research at Yale School of Medicine, said Shelley Quiala, the festival’s executive director.

Dr. Nunez-Smith is a local hero and advisory leader whose trailblazing work on social determinants of health came to light during an unprecedented time,” said Quiala. 

The award, which honors one person whose visionary work changes the world, was presented to Nunez-Smith during an online ceremony. (The event was held virtually for a second consecutive year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of medicine, public health, and management, has dedicated her life to studying healthcare disparities. She was the co-chair of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, and currently chairs the U.S. COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. She also founded the Equity Research and Innovation Center (ERIC), which generates actionable research to eliminate health and health care inequity domestically and globally. 

Born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Nunez-Smith first came to the mainland U.S. as a teenager to attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and later Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. She earned a master’s degree in health sciences at Yale.

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In the Virgin Islands, Nunez-Smith said, she “had never formed an identity that included race.” But once in the mainland U.S., she found that racial categories were pervasive. 

I have a stethoscope around my neck, but we cannot match the social cues. Race is just so overpowering for people,” she said during the award event. “The flip side of that also tells its own narrative: If I had a dollar for every time a patient of color has said ‘You know, I never had a physician of color take care of me…’”

Nunez-Smith experienced racism and saw it reflected in the experiences of her patients. But she said the issue was not being discussed in terms of patient health. 

Every time I walked into a patient’s room, I understood that [there are] these social structural factors,” she said. “Why aren’t we talking about that? Why aren’t we talking about how racism and bias landed this person in this hospital bed? How does it determine the quality of care that they get? It just became something I couldn’t un-see.”

In her White House role, Nunez-Smith is working to center equity in the government’s response to the pandemic and to ensure that the voices of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are heard in discussions of healthcare. Members of these communities are dying from COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white Americans as a consequence of unequal working and living conditions, uneven healthcare access and treatment, and other factors. 

We have to make sure that everyone gets full advantage of our country’s scientific discoveries from the PPE [personal protective equipment], to the treatments, to the vaccine,” said Nunez-Smith. “But we understand the social and structural as well. So, that work has to happen in parallel. People are suffering now, not just from grief, but from economic worry. People are struggling to know where the next meal is going to come from [and] whether or not they are going to have a place to live. So we have to commit to investing in that as well.”

Nunez-Smith ended the conversation by talking about her family and how, as a mother of three interracial children, they inspire her work. “It is highly motivating,” she said, “to know that we need to give them a better society than we have now.”

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Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643