Using the Roots of Health Inequity: An Interview with Public Health Nurse Jennifer Weitzel

Jennifer Weitzel, MS, RN

Jennifer Weitzel, MS, RN

By Tiffany J. Huang, MPH, Program Analyst, Assessment and Planning

NACCHO’s Roots of Health Inequity Web-based course offers a learning opportunity for public health practitioners, partners, and students to explore health inequities. How can local health departments use the course? We interviewed Jennifer Weitzel, MS, RN, a public health nurse at Public Health Madison & Dane County in Wisconsin, to hear about her health department’s experience.

How are you using the Roots of Health Inequity course in your health department?

Our health department hosts student interns from across disciplines and levels, from bachelor’s-level nursing students to doctoral students. Our largest cohorts are usually during the summer. While they are typically recruited to work on a particular project, we also engage them in additional activities that, until recently, I facilitated. For the past two summers, we’ve used the Roots course.

Because the interns were new to the health department, we used Units 3, 4, and 5 [on Public Health History, Root Causes, and Social Justice]. The students worked through the course on their own and posted on the online discussion boards. We then met every other week for in-person discussions on the unit content. These discussions were an informal opportunity to debrief face-to-face about what they learned and how it related to what they were experiencing in the health department and in their respective fields.

We also often bring in current events that may be applicable. For instance, last summer, the New York Times published an exposé on exploitation of workers in the New York City nail salon industry. We discussed the article in terms of what they had learned in the course about the intersections between racism, sexism, and class and how they were playing out in that particular setting.

I’m a huge advocate of the course, and I also use it outside of the health department in a university course I teach on population health and health policy.

What benefits have you seen from using the course?

The feedback from students both summers was very positive. The students said that it was very informative, particularly in providing a good grounding in the underpinnings of public health practice and the historical perspective—how public health started in social justice, activism, and policy work, then shifted to an individual-level focus rooted in the biomedical paradigm, and is now coming back full circle to its social justice roots.

Our goal is to prepare a competent public health workforce moving forward. This is something we hope can plant the seed in students and open them up to what addressing root causes means. Our hope is that by introducing these concepts here and seeing it in action at a local health department, they can take that forward in whatever setting they work in.

What recommendations do you have for other health departments interested in the course?

I would encourage them not to be intimidated by the volume of information. The course is very robust and contains so many activities, discussions, and supplemental readings. Go in and use the parts applicable to you, or take it in small pieces—don’t feel like you need to move through it at any particular pace. I would also recommend having smaller groups that stay constant over time. Because the course really gets at the root causes of health inequities, which can be difficult, sensitive topics, I think you need to build that trust within a group to have meaningful conversations moving through the course. So I would recommend small cohorts that participate online but have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a facilitator who’s well-versed in equity discussions.

To learn more about NACCHO’s Roots of Health Inequity course, visit


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