From Writing about Urban Planning to Equity-Centered Public Health—Get to Know Kim Etingoff

We In this series of blog posts, we’re featuring the stories of UEP alumni, where they are today, and how they got there. In this post, we get to learn about the work Kim Etingoff (MA’15) does with Mass in Motion to improve food access and opportunities for physical activity by addressing its root causes.

Can you describe your current role and your career path since UEP?

I work for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), where I started right after graduating UEP, so I’ve been there almost 6 years. I work with Mass in Motion, which addresses the root causes of lack of food access and opportunities for physical activity in communities in Massachusetts. Root causes are the underlying reasons that community conditions exist in the first place. Mass in Motion really focuses on something called Social Determinants of Health, the public health phrase for the various conditions that create or get in the way of people’s health, like housing, the built environment, or jobs. We work with cities and towns on local policy and practice change to make it easier for residents to access food and physical activity, specifically using a Leading with Race and Racism framework to make sure we’re doing equity work and not just paying lip service to it. The framework includes steps like disaggregating data by race, actually talking to people who experience inequities to understand local conditions and potential solutions, and sharing decision making power with them.

We work with cities and towns on local policy and practice change to make it easier for residents to access food and physical activity.

Tell us about how you got into editing and publishing books about urban planning.

I started working for a small book packager in high school. Book packaging companies are hired by larger publishers to develop book projects, though the final products are marketed and distributed by the publisher. The company was owned by a friend’s mom and she hired both of us to write educational books aimed at readers in middle and high school. I kept working there throughout college and afterwards, with the work evolving. Some projects touched on urban planning or themes from my work now (government, history, health), though the book series were wide-ranging (like baseball player bios or the history of vampires and werewolves…). I love writing and was stringing a bunch of part-time jobs together after college, so also added freelance writing to my portfolio. I’ve written a few pieces and edited a few books related to urban planning since then.

How did you transition from publishing to your current role at the Department of Public Health?

My writing skills have been a consistent thread through my various jobs and at UEP. Writing is how I communicate best, whether I have been writing educational books, a UEP academic essay, a journal article, or guidance for grantees. It was something I could count on when looking for jobs, such as the one I eventually found after UEP. I often apply some of what I learned from publishing and writing to more recent work and my role at DPH, especially related to communications. For example, public health can be full of jargon and acronyms, so I try to use plain language wherever possible so that non-public health folks can understand what we’re talking about.

What are the fundamental urban planning questions you grapple with in your role?

My team and I ask a lot of questions like: “Why are communities the way they are?” and “How did structural racism create our communities and the health outcomes we see in our communities?” A lot of the time, public health focuses on individual interventions—patient screening for food insecurity, exercise classes, connecting people with social services, etc. These are important, but addressing the underlying causes of why people experience food insecurity or can’t exercise is what will change the bigger issue and prevent more people from experiencing the problem in the first place. And often, traditional public health has not considered racism or other forms of oppression, so interventions have left out people of color and others, or have even increased health inequities, however well meaning the interventions are.

How has UEP helped you get to where you are in your career?

I didn’t plan to go into public health…for example, I didn’t actually take Mary’s public health course! I focused on food access at UEP, and also got a great breadth of knowledge about planning and different aspects of why communities are the way they are. UEP and an urban planning approach have been really critical in helping me understand those larger issues and systems and creating systemic solutions to them. As a white person, the lessons I learned about race and racism at UEP have helped me try to challenge white dominant systems and build in authentic racial equity work into my DPH role, though I am constantly learning new things and learning from my amazing colleagues.

UEP and an urban planning approach have been really critical in helping me understand those larger issues and systems and creating systemic solutions to them.

Specific skills and classes that were helpful for me at UEP included learning community engagement theory and practice in Foundations and through involvement with Practical Visionaries with Penn, program development and management through Laurie’s classes, structural racism and history of urban planning through Cities, and food access equity theory and interventions with Julian, among others. I also run into UEP alumni all the time and work with a few pretty closely in my current role. I love having a local network of people who are thinking innovatively and who I can count on to expand my work.

Can you share an example of a favorite project you have worked on and how it exemplifies working in the policy/planning field?

I can think of a couple recent projects that relate to UEP. The first is a Field Project we hosted in 2019/20 looking at the importance of history in understanding local conditions that have created racially inequitable health and in figuring out what to do about it. The team found a few key historical points that local policymakers and other changemakers can consider, such as the presence of redlining, sundown towns, or urban renewal efforts that brought highways through Black neighborhoods. You can’t create or advocate for equitable policies and practices without understanding that history, and considering how decision makers need to practice racial justice to acknowledge and speak to that history. COVID-19 has gotten in the way of fully applying what the team found to our Mass in Motion grantee work, but we have plans to incorporate this understanding of history moving forward.

The second project, still ongoing, is exploring more Social Determinants of Health than Mass in Motion has traditionally focused on, beyond the more obvious policy and practice changes that relate to food access and physical activity such as housing and economic development. I actually was able to work with recent student Jessika Brenin to get us started on this project, since she was interning with MAPC. For example, people who don’t have affordable housing can’t always buy healthy food (it’s not an issue of people not knowing how to eat healthy, for example). So what can local communities do to advance more affordable housing, and connect it with food access? This is a very exciting project we’re in the middle of.

What advice do you have for current UEP students?

Relationships are key! Build on the great network of UEP folks we have here and around the country/world to keep learning. And keep the bigger picture in mind—UEP students will be in key positions to work on systems and create healthier, better communities in partnership with residents. That’s where real change happens.

Read more alumni profiles in this series here.