A community health advocate finds her voice

In February 2020, Brett Dennis-Duke, A.L.M. ’21, was working in a Seattle medical respite center for unhoused individuals with acute health needs. She was finishing up coursework for a master of liberal arts in the field of anthropology and archaeology at Harvard Extension School (HES). And she was finalizing her thesis proposal focused on community health workers and disease prevention in vulnerable populations in the United States.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Seattle, one of the first American cities to feel the deadly impact of the virus, the medical center, already dedicated to individuals susceptible to communicable disease, felt like ground zero. Dennis-Duke was devastated.

“Over half of our floor got infected within just a few days,” Dennis-Duke recalled. “It made and still makes me so angry. It’s the same pattern over and over again.”

Just a few months later, while still dealing with the impact of the pandemic, Seattle — and Dennis-Duke — found themselves at the center of anti-racism protests over the murder of George Floyd. After working long hours at the respite center, Dennis-Duke volunteered at the medical tents set up to support the protests in her neighborhood.

These two frontline experiences gave Dennis-Duke’s ongoing thesis work both urgency and perspective. She had long believed that access to healthcare and social justice were closely connected, but the crises of 2020 brought new passion to that belief.

“I was reading about community health while seeing actual suffering and hearing about people’s lives. I realized that it’s not about data. It’s about people. For me, everything I was doing was totally wrapped up together,” Dennis-Duke said.

These experiences empowered her as well. Working on her thesis, titled “Meet Them Where They Are: Achieving Health Equity for People Experiencing Homelessness with Community Health Workers,” gave her the confidence to grow her advocacy role at work.

“I found a part of myself that I knew was there, but I didn’t know how to access it. I learned that I can access my voice through advocating. That’s where I really feel in my element. It was a coming-of-age discovery, in a way.”

Dennis-Duke’s interest in the connection between global health and social justice began with a goal of becoming a medical provider. In pursuit of that, she completed the premedical program at HES in 2015. When she finished, she realized that she wanted additional theoretical grounding in social justice before becoming a practitioner.

The anthropology and archaeology graduate program offered the social justice theory and critical thinking she wanted. It also offered the flexibility to design a course of study she calls “medical anthropology.” Courses such as “Case Studies in Global Health” and “Global Health Challenges” helped Dennis-Duke piece together the philosophical and theoretical connections between social justice and health care, as well as hone her thesis topic. One of her most exciting opportunities at HES was working with her thesis director, Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of Partners In Health (PIH), a Harvard affiliate.

“It was incredibly meaningful to me that Dr. Mukherjee took me on as a student. It meant that someone I greatly respected saw the same connections that I did. And it enabled me to communicate my passion for people experiencing homelessness to a like-minded organization and potentially champion this cause. It made me feel heard and seen, and hopeful that change might be possible,” she said.

With her thesis finished and graduation just around the corner, Dennis-Duke has begun the emotional work of processing and unpacking the traumatic events of the past year. She admits that her destination is still unclear — counseling, advocacy, or returning to school for a Ph.D. or a nursing degree are all potential options.

But her experiences have bolstered her belief that she is moving in the right direction.

“I am now — more than ever — committed and driven and passionate about folks living homeless. This is the community I beat my drum for.”

Written by Mary Sharp Emerson.

This story first appeared in the Harvard Gazette.