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Holistic doctor and social change architect Dr. Gail C. Christopher
BY J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Dr. Gail C. Christopher D.N., N.D., is clearly much more than an award-winning change agent with a list of distinctions, three published books and widely-read articles in national news outlets.
With a visionary ability to draw insights from her practice as a doctor of naprapathy, which studies the human connective tissue system, she has used them to construct a holistic viewpoint as a social justice architect who has created and led programs and policies for more than three decades.
Last Wednesday, March 21, the former senior advisor and vice president of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, who previously served as vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Office of Health, Women and Families, brought that breadth and depth of knowledge to the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s “Speakers Who Inspire” series.
“Through our Speakers Who Inspire series, we bring in national thought leaders who can point the way toward attaining health equity in Pinellas County,” said Randall H. Russell, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.
As the creator of the national Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Effort for America (TRHT), which is a comprehensive, national and community-based process to plan for and bring about transformational and sustainable change, and to address the historic and contemporary effects of racism, Dr. Christopher has spent her career in the pursuit of racial equity. Her insights and experience help to understand the crucial role racial equity plays in community health and well being.
Part of her work has delved into the social determinants of health, which include access to education, economic security, quality food and environmental factors.
“Health is so much more than access to Medical care; there’s also social determinants,” shared Christopher. “Being able to take that kind of holistic, inclusive, broad understanding of why society has to change for people to be healthy — that’s a fundamental requirement for us to become a healthier community.”
Relating the personal experience that led her down the combined path of health practitioner/justice leader, Christopher revealed how pain was a catalyst that contributed to her mission.
“When I got into my 20s and got married and gave birth to my first child, in her sixth week they diagnosed her with congenital heart disease — Tetralogy of Fallot — and they said they couldn’t do anything for her until she was five years old, and then maybe they could do open heart surgery. What they weren’t telling us was they only expected her to live for another six months. So, we buried her.”
Christopher only learned some 25 years later the surgery that could have saved her daughter’s life had been invented 30 years earlier.
“It had been invented in the forties — but the surgery was not offered to us. But most significantly, I learned that the person who had invented the surgery was an African American man – Vivien Thomas.”
From that moment on, Christopher dedicated her life to figuring out how to stop women from losing children and dying prematurely.
While it was a steep price to pay, it also fueled another passion: how to fight the systemic racism that likely contributed to her infant daughter’s death. After years pioneering work in the field of social determinants of health, she came to realize that the issue of race needed to be dealt with head-on.
“After decades of doing direct clinical work and designing social programs and social policy, I realized that you have to deal with racism…or you cannot achieve healthy communities. I’m a Star Trek fan, so I use the term ‘jettison.’ We have to jettison the beliefs in a hierarchy of human value.”
Christopher spent a decade leading the Kellogg’s “America Healing” project, which worked to support the efforts of racial healing happening in communities across the nation, fund research, and impact how racism was encouraged by biased media reporting.
But eventually she knew there was more work to be done. She decided there had to be a way to deal with the cause and that meant changing the way people think and feel.
For the holistic health practitioner-turned-social change maker, this meant replacing the fallacy of a hierarchy of human value with a new belief about humanity. For Christopher, “the new belief is that we are all interconnected, we are all of equal value, and that that connection is indeed sacred.”
She explained how her thesis revolved around people being wired for connection. She said the human consciousness, physiology and neurobiology is wired to be connected to other human beings.
The “fallacies that separate us from one other, that allow us to devalue each other, to murder and kill and imprison and destroy one another, goes against our core wiring as people,” she shared.
Out of this newfound commitment, Christopher designed Kellogg’s TRHT project.
“We had to be honest about the work of healing and creating a new vision for this country that aligns with our aspirational statements of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Christopher departed from the Kellogg Foundation last year and founded Ntianu Center for Healing and Nature, named after the infant daughter she lost. Ntianu means “Noble Spirit.”
She is currently touring nationally and internationally bringing her decades of expertise, knowledge and transformative insights to policymakers, practitioners and philanthropic and educational organizations.
Join the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg on Thursday, May 10 from 8-10:30 a.m. for a look at the state of the nonprofits in Pinellas County. The event will be held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in the Student Center. Go to healthystpete.foundation to register.
To learn more about Christopher and to follow her work, visit drgailcchristopher.com.