Arkansas Minority Health Commission Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Former directors reflected on efforts to combat health disparities during a virtual celebration.

There’s been much discussion during the pandemic about health disparities among minority communities, but those disparities aren’t new. They’ve existed for a long time and 30 years ago, Dr. Joycelyn Elders decided to do something to improve the health of Arkansans.

“We had lots of problems…we had a very high cardiovascular death rate, we had lots of hypertension and we weren’t even addressing those issues,” she said. “We were just letting them sit out there.”

At the time, Elders was director of the Arkansas Department of Health and she worked with Sen. Bill Lewellen and the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus to create the Arkansas Minority Health Commission through Act 912 of 1991. Elders and AMHC’s six former executive directors reflected on the history of the commission during a virtual 30th anniversary celebration Thursday evening.

“We learned in public health it was our job to make sure everybody had the very best health that they could possibly have, so we really spent our time working on that and that’s how that commission was formed,” Elders said.

AMHC’s mission is to ensure all minority Arkansans have equitable access to preventive health care. The organization also seeks ways to promote health and prevent diseases and conditions that are prevalent in minority populations.

Tommy Sproles served as the commission’s first director from 1991 to 2001 and he was instrumental in securing funds for the organization. Through his work as a physician’s assistant, he knew firsthand the health inequities facing people of color.

“I saw with my own eyes the disparities that we had,” Sproles said. “Teen pregnancy rates were up, babies were dying, little Black babies were dying, hypertension and strokes was killing us every day. It was about as bad as COVID is now.”

Although disparities still exist today, AMHC has implemented initiatives to close the gap like Southern Ain’t Fried Sundays, one of the organization’s most popular initiatives. The program educates African American and Hispanic churches, communities and organizations about healthier alternatives to preparing and cooking traditional style meals. It also provides a way to help reduce heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity. 

ShaRhonda Love, AMHC’s most recent director, left the organization earlier this year, but during her tenure, she helped implement the first state-owned mobile health unit. The unit travels all over Arkansas providing screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose. During the pandemic, the mobile unit started providing COVID-19 screenings as well.

In addition to education, another key to reducing health disparities is providing minority patients access to health care workers to whom they can relate. To that end, AMHC has launched the Minority Health Workforce Diversity Scholarship. Awarded to minority college students pursuing a career in the health sector, the goal is to increase diversity in the health care workforce. 

“So that when minority populations need to receive access to care, they are able to receive care from people who not only look like them, but understand their culture and speak their language so that they don’t have to feel like they are repeating themselves multiple times and/or receiving information that they truly just don’t understand,” Love said. 

As times change, so too should the commission, former director Wynona Bryant-Williams said. That evolution should include expanding the organization’s focus to issues such as cancer, renal diseases and mental health, as well as considering new minority groups in outreach efforts.  

“We’ve got other minorities coming into our state that we need to be inclusive in including them in our initiatives with minority health,” she said.

Although there is more work to be done, especially in light of the challenge created by the ongoing pandemic, Dr. Elders is pleased with the work that’s been accomplished over the last 30 years. 

“It’s really made a difference and I’m proud of every one of you,” she said. “You’ve all done a good job and I’m very proud and we have to keep doing a good job.”

More information about the Arkansas Minority Health Commission’s initiatives is available on the organization’s website

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.