On the record with Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation’s Tiffany Hightower
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation announced this week the first round of funding to support medical professionals in the state.
The foundation granted $5,000 to five Black healthcare workers to help pay down medical student debts. The overall goal is to provide $55,000 in grants to Black professionals to help ensure they can stay in the medical field, said foundation Executive Director Tiffany Hightower.
“If we understand that representation matters, and we have Black doctors, we have to also sow seeds into those doctors to make sure that we can keep that representation, and that representation is sustainable,” she told Health News Illinois this week.
Hightower also highlighted the foundation’s recent trip to Ghana, including a donation of $500,000 in medical supplies to the country, and continued efforts to address health equity in Illinois.
HNI: Tell me a bit more about the foundation and the work you do.
TH: The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation was founded in 2002, it is the civic and philanthropic arm of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. We look at the kind of policymaking that the caucus does, and then look on our end at how we can make a tangible impact in the community.
HNI: Tell me more about the grant program for local medical professionals. How is this supporting the work they’re doing?
TH: The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in 2021 passed the final pillar — the healthcare and human services pillar — of its four pillars to end systemic racism. That pillar highlights the concern of Black doctors and the enormous debt that is incurred from medical school, and some of the impediments of Black doctors being able to really work in the community is based upon that debt.
Based on that pillar, we created a brain trust on health that meets monthly. Our team is interdisciplinary. We have Black research professionals, medical officers, administrators, nurses, OB-GYNs, mental health professionals and dentists all coming together. We are addressing the issues that we know Black Illinoisans are facing when it pertains to health to see if there’s any avenues for improvement in health policy, to transform health policy and to really make critical differences based on having all of these wonderful minds in this space coming together.
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus celebrated its 55th anniversary last year. And so based on that, I came up with the notion that we would support 11 doctors with a grant of $5,000, which would total $55,000 to help them pay down their medical student debt. If we understand that representation matters, and we have Black doctors, we have to also sow seeds into those doctors to make sure that we can keep that representation, and that representation is sustainable.
We had our first round of five that we awarded (this week). These doctors are phenomenal. They also had to give us a commitment to be part of our brain trust for the year, to be a part of the solution-making that we hope to do in health policy where it pertains to Black Illinoisans.
HNI: Where do you see things as far as health equity in Illinois since the passage of the Black Caucus’ healthcare omnibus?
TH: There’s work to be done, honestly. That was just the start of something huge and there’s definitely more work to be done in this health equity space. Especially when you look at the numbers for Black people across the nation. There’s still much, much, much more work to be done.
If people are educated on the need for this — that everybody has access to a doctor and that everybody has access to medical professionals that look like them or have the same shared life experience as them — that way people can understand that. We are making strides but, of course, there’s more work to be done.
HNI: What are things you believe policymakers should be focusing on as it relates to equity?
TH: Making sure that there’s access. When you look at inequities, whether it’s health, economics or education, it always boils down to access. The opportunities are there, but how can we ensure that everybody is getting equal access to those opportunities? Whether it is to have health insurance or whether it is to become a doctor, to sustain yourself in that career, it all rolls into this notion of equitable access.
HNI: How did this work to provide essential medical supplies to hospitals across Ghana come about?
TH: We launched what I call our Africa programming, and we took a delegation of elected officials, board of director members and business leaders to Ghana in January. When we went there, we met with so many leaders, but we actually had the opportunity to sit down with the mayor of Accra. The mayor of Accra mentioned to us that babies were dying, premature babies were dying in Ghana because they did not have adequate medical supplies, more specifically incubators. That touched my heart and it touched others’ hearts.
Upon returning to the States, I immediately started calling some of our dear partners, some of the people that really support the foundation, and we were able to get a donation of incubators to send over to Ghana. Then, through that conversation, one of the hospitals introduced us to an organization by the name of Project CURE. Project CURE sends medical supplies to over 135 countries. We partnered with them and with some additional donations with our donation of incubators to Ghana, we are sending close to $500,000 worth of medical supplies to a hospital in Accra to help the generations of babies that are being lost without having adequate medical equipment.
HNI: Why is it important to the foundation to be providing support outside of Illinois and to a place like Ghana?
TH: We are the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, and so we are descendants of the enslaved, descendants of the African diaspora. And so in all actuality, we are providing assistance from the land from which we came.