NACCHO’s Member Spotlight series features interviews with local health department leaders and staff about their careers in public health. This interview features Denisha Porter, MPH, Director of Health Promotion and Worksite Wellness and the Creating Healthy Communities Program at the Cincinnati Health Department. She is also a member of NACCHO’s Board of Directors. Below she shares how she worked with the local housing authority to implement smoke-free multi-unit housing for 13,000 residents and discusses her department’s efforts to achieve accreditation.
Tell us about your career path in public health.
I went to Miami University in Ohio to pursue a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and found out about public health through my minor study, medical sociology. During one of my classes, a wall advertisement for a graduate program in public health caught my eye but I didn’t immediately act on it. After I received my undergraduate degree, I worked as a health unit coordinator in the bone marrow transplant division at The Jewish Hospital – Mercy Health. Unfortunately, during this time I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but was grateful that I was surrounded by the best doctors in cancer medicine and treatment. Thankfully, I was able to have my thyroid removed and I was cleared of any signs of cancer. Those circumstances really shaped my passion for public health and gave me that final push to attend Wright State University to obtain my master’s in public health.
Soon after completing my graduate degree, I worked for a non-profit organization that focused on healthy eating, activing living, and smoking cessation. While there, I really honed my skills in program development. In 2007, I accepted a position as a registered sanitarian for the Cincinnati Health Department and in that position I learned all the skills I needed to be successful in my current role as Director of Health Promotion and Worksite Wellness and the Creating Health Community Program for the department. My previous role as a sanitarian taught me the importance of listening to the community, how to be flexible and patient, and the value in physically showing up to resolve an issue as opposed to handling a problem over the phone or through e-mail.
I am currently helping my alma mater launch a public health internship program.
What are some of the highlights of your career in public health? What makes the work that you do worthwhile?
When I started my position, we didn’t have many people in our coalition but I was able to expand it to over 100 members. In 2016, the department worked with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority to help it transition to smoke-free multi-unit housing, which has impacted over 13,000 residents.
Additionally, when we conducted our needs assessment in 2014, many of our community members were concerned about violence; in response, the Creating Health Communities Coalition Active Living Subcommittee implemented crime prevention through environmental design techniques within the community. We worked with the community to identify areas that could be improved such as landscaping and lighting in the hope that that residents would feel more comfortable being outside. We have also worked with a local food retailer to help introduce fruits and vegetables in over 210 stores in the greater Cincinnati area. Our Produce Perks Program incentivizes a dollar per match up to $10, which gives people up to $20 of buying power to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets. That program has been so successful that my healthy eating coordinator has created his own non-profit based on the program, which has now expanded across the entire state.
We’ve also assisted other worksites, a grocery store, all Cincinnati health department locations, and two local universities go tobacco-free. With NACCHO funding, we have started chronic disease and diabetes self-management programs that have helped encourage the community to make healthier life choices.
Those are just a few highlights of my career in this field that I’m very proud of. I do this work because I love to interact with a variety people.
What challenges are you or your health department currently facing?
Accreditation is my department’s biggest challenge at the moment. We are in the process of making sure we have the right documentation for submission and we’re striving to develop a culture that supports accreditation. To achieve accreditation status, we have a team and several different people in leadership positions who are taking responsibility for each domain of the process. We have hired an accreditation coordinator to spearhead this project and I’m proud to say that we are at about 80% completion. Also, getting people to recognize policy, systems, and environmental change has been a little challenging. Oftentimes, people don’t understand the context or verbiage around those terms.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in public health since you started in this field?
I’ve seen people get more involved in what it means to be healthy. More people appear to be concerned about healthy habits and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which is great. Another change I’ve seen since my beginnings in this profession is the steady decrease of public health funding. Having to figure out the best way to meet the needs of our community and provide services while being on a tighter budget has been really difficult.
How are you positioning yourself and your health department for the future?
I’m really big on collaboration. I often think about how to work with more people to create a bigger impact. I look forward to working with more businesses and non-profits and streamlining local government so that we’re working more efficiently with other city departments like the parks and recreation, water works, planning, police, and fire departments.
How long have you been a member of NACCHO and what value do you find in belonging?
I’ve been a member since 2011. I fell in love with NACCHO when I first discovered the organization and I loved the networking and mentorship opportunities. The NACCHO Annual conference is also a great venue to learn what other health departments are doing and to showcase a department’s programs, model practices, and initiatives. At the 2016 NACCHO Annual Conference, I presented a poster on the department’s Creating Healthy Communities Coalition and highlighted our tobacco-free campus policy, which empowers residents to be free from smoking. The program encourages residents to become facilitators at their own sites to conduct courses for tobacco cessation. The poster session was well received by conference attendees. I was also part of the Big Cities Community of Practice Coalition.
What do you enjoy doing in your time away from work?
In my free time I love to travel, meet new people, and learn from them. I also enjoy practicing yoga. I love having different experiences and that’s what life’s all about. My motto is “make every day your best.”