“When I was a child, my mother was diagnosed with a rare nervous system condition that left her hospitalized. Luckily, my aunt Michelle, with aid from my father, was able to take care of me during this trying period. While my mom was eventually able to recover, I would soon come to realize a stark reality – that Black people live shorter, sicker lives.”
“A few years after my mother’s recovery, I would lose my aunt at age 40 to preventable heart disease. Losing my aunt – a caretaker, a third parent, a friend – was devastating. I was upset, confused and unsure of how I would move forward. As time passed, I looked around my community and saw that Black people – folks who looked like my family members – are more likely to experience poor health outcomes. Data shows that African Americans in Alameda county live for roughly seven years fewer than the county average. Good health is the foundation to thriving. Chronic illness often prevents people from successfully carrying out key tasks such as working or excelling in school. Preventable chronic illnesses can often be an impediment to social mobility which can in turn limit opportunities for future generations.
“In addition to facing high levels of chronic illness, Black communities often face disproportionately high levels of violence and poverty. People caught in these circumstances often struggle to find a way out. I personally saw this with my own cousin Kiante who lost his mother at a young age to cancer. My uncle struggled to raise him and provide stability in his life. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the same opportunities that I had, and he was set on a different path. In 2013, he was shot and killed at a First Friday event in Downtown Oakland. His loss hit me hard. I knew that if I did not have the opportunities that were afforded to me, my life could have taken a similar path.
“The loss of my aunt and cousin made me realize that I had to do something. I have made it my life’s goal to ensure that everyone, regardless of their race, income, or immigration status has access to quality healthcare, economic opportunity, and safety. Even if my work doesn’t directly save lives, I want to change systems to make it possible for everyone to live and thrive. Especially those who have been historically marginalized.
“In 2017, I joined Greenlining Institute as a Health Equity Fellow, encouraging local and regional health employers to hire people directly impacted by the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects young men of color. I also got involved in state and local efforts to improve the lives of young men of color by acting as a leader within my local Alliance for Boys and Men of Color chapter. Further, I submitted a public comment letter to the California Future of Health Workforce Commission, urging them to integrate young men of color and other marginalized communities into the state’s health workforce.
“During my tenure as a Health Equity Fellow, I met staff from the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC). I saw that CIPC was leading a campaign to expand health care access to undocumented immigrants. In the past, I saw how important it was for my mom to have health coverage as she struggled with illness. I figured that the next step in my journey should be to work to expand coverage to vulnerable communities to ensure that they don’t have to face the devastation of losing a loved one prematurely, as I had.
“I chose to move to Los Angeles and work for CIPC because I recognize that every community needs full healthcare access, no matter who they are or where they’re from. As the Health and Public Benefits campaign coordinator, I coordinate a statewide health advocacy coalition, engage with coalition partners, and meet with legislators and their staff.
“Early in my time with CIPC, I attended a meeting with a state senator in Riverside. An elderly community member, from our coalition member TODEC Legal Center, shared her story in Spanish about the serious illness that is threatening her life, and how urgently she and so many others like her require full healthcare access.
“The senator was moved and agreed to co-author a bill to expand healthcare access to undocumented elders. It was clear that the years spent organizing and educating the senator and his staff produced this change of heart. Powerful moments like these keep me going, even when I feel worn down from reading the news or seeing what’s happening in our communities. When we come together to identify solutions to the problems we face and work with our policymakers to turn those ideas into reality, we can win.
“Earlier this year, we were part of an even bigger victory when Governor Gavin Newsom announced his 2019-2020 budget will include $98 million for extending Medi-Cal to low-income young adults previously excluded because of their immigration status. CIPC and countless other organizations have been tirelessly advocating for this inclusion for years. The expansion will cover an estimated 90,000 undocumented young adults in its first year.
“While I continue to work with CIPC, I recently moved back to Oakland to be closer to my community and family. I am now applying to graduate programs in public health and policy. I seek to build upon my experience fighting for positive change in my hometown. I want to build toward a healthier Oakland that shows the world what I already know – Oakland is full of amazing people doing incredible things to uplift the community. I only seek to make their lives easier by ensuring that they have access to the resources necessary to thrive: good health, safety, and economic opportunity.
“We need to transform the actual systems people live in. My aunt and cousin didn’t live to see that transformation, but I believe if we keep doing this work, we can make a better life possible for so many others.”
Denzel Tongue is the Health and Public Benefits Campaign Coordinator at The California Immigrant Policy Center in Oakland. An Oakland native, he was previously a Health Equity Fellow at Greenlining Institute and an Urban Leaders Fellow with the offices of Mayor Libby Schaaf and Assemblyman Rob Bonta.