Moving from Conversation to Action: Developing a Racial Justice Competency Model for Public Health Professionals

Overt acts of racism, hate crimes, and violence have escalated in recent years throughout the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified systemic inequalities that continue in the United States as Black, Asian American, Latino, and Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected. Regardless of where you are located, there have been many attacks against Asian American people and civil unrest in response to systemic police brutality due to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people. Public health agencies across the country declared racism a public health crisis, representing a culmination of civil unrest and the stark disparities in COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States. These declarations are an important first step for advancing racial justice in health, but rooting them in strategic planning with adequate resources will make them effective.

Intentionally focusing on justice is crucial to achieving health and racial equity. Many professionals in the field of public health are familiar with health and racial equity principles; they often lack the knowledge or skills to connect theory to action and measurable impact. Public health practitioners need to be able to challenge organizational policies and equity initiatives that uphold institutional and structural racism. Having a tool that enables this examination and provides accountability is vital to addressing health disparities and bringing about true racial justice. To address this imperative, the HRSA-funded Public Health Training Centers (PHTCs) in partnership with the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training began holding monthly conversations around racism and the role of PHTCs.

As a result of these conversations, the PHTCs developed the Racial Justice Workgroup to formalize their racial justice work. The workgroup also creates a unified framework that all the PHTCs, their partners, and the public health agencies in each region can use to provide racial justice education and training. The goal is to establish clear, specific, consensus-based recommendations and produce a Racial Justice Competency Model (RJCM). The public health workforce can use these recommendations to better understand and respond to gaps in training. The RJCM development process follows five phases as recommended by the U.S. Department of Labor (Competency Model Clearinghouse, 2019): 1. Develop a competency library; 2. Convene an Expert Review Panel (ERP); 3. Create draft models; 4. Validate the working model; 5. Refine and finalize the model.

The Racial Justice Workgroup began developing their competency library by reaching out to each PHTC and their partners. The Workgroup asked each group to submit competency models and frameworks currently being used to develop health equity-related training, student projects, and job descriptions. The initial competency library consisted of over 530 statements.

The next step was convening an expert review panel of over 30 public health practitioners from state and local public health agencies, federal government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and schools of public health. The panel started reviewing and prioritizing competencies and will continue providing feedback on the competency model development process. The panel’s goal is to have a validated and final RJCM ready by the summer of 2022.

“It is an honor to be working with this group to develop racial justice competencies for the public health workforce. This is a sector that stands in a significant space. Equipping the public health workforce with tools to address structural racism is an essential public health service to their communities.”

– Lauri Andress Ph.D., MPH, J.D., Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine


Structural racism in the United States has been impacting health outcomes and opportunities for people of color and tribes for generations. It is time for public health professionals to be bold leaders and take purposeful action to introduce workforce development practices that promote racial justice. We can no longer claim that racism is a problem of the past. We must work to create equity-centered solutions to stop perpetuating additional harm in the communities most impacted by racism. It is imperative for state and local health departments to understand their role in combating racial injustice.

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