Sidelining statistics: Pediatric psychologist and researcher works to even the playing field in marginalized communities
LeRoy E. Reese ’88 comes from a family in which several male cousins played intercollegiate sports and a number of them didn’t graduate. Luckily, his mom knew how to prevent her son from becoming this statistic.
“When we looked at schools, one of the things The College of Wooster did a good job of was graduating students and student athletes,” said Reese. “While I had aspirations to play football at a bigger school, Mom reminded me that this was a high-quality institution, both academically and athletically, and that gave us—really her—confidence in Wooster. Mrs. Reese gets all the credit for that.”
While earning his degree in psychology at Wooster was a huge success, Reese was disheartened by the realization that every African American male who earned a degree with him was recruited as an athlete. “I hold Wooster in a higher regard now than I probably did as a student, but I’m a truth teller,” said Reese. “Wooster has worked very directly since then trying to address that, but I wonder if I had not been an athlete, would the College have been interested in me at the time?”
Fortunately, many professors saw his potential off the field. He’s become a powerful ambassador of the College because of how he benefited from their personal investment. He fondly recalls how his Black studies Professor Yvonne Williams (now professor emerita, Africana studies) poured into him time and again, challenging him to stretch himself. She and her late husband, Ted Willliams, Robert E. Wilson Professor of Chemistry, even went as far as hosting Black students at home on a regular basis when they were struggling in any way.
“The burden of a Black faculty member on a white campus to serve all of its students, but particularly its Black students, is heavy,” said Reese, who has taught at historically Black colleges and universities for more than 15 years. “There is a debt Wooster owes to faculty like the Williamses who shouldered those burdens, and one of the ways they can repair that debt is to increase the number of Black faculty on campus.”
Professors Terry Kershaw of sociology and Bill Scott of psychology also impacted Reese’s Wooster experience. Reese grew fascinated in Kershaw’s Black psychology course that offered a different cultural worldview of African and African- descended people than what he heard in Psych 101. Reese connected it back to his teen years when he worked with a psychologist to address self-described “knucklehead” tendencies. Later, Reese’s work with Scott, his junior Independent Study advisor, exposed him to career options that combined his interests in research and working with young people.
These key influences undoubtedly led Reese to the highly personal work of improving health statistics for those in overwhelmingly under-supported, underserved, and undertreated communities. In particular, he’s focused on working with adolescent males, young men, and children, in the health equity space.
As a pediatric psychologist with Akoma Counseling & Consulting in Atlanta, he helps kids and families navigate and destigmatize mental illness to promote positive health and wellness. Reese also conducts research at the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Pediatric Clinical and Translational Research Unit and uses the findings to benefit communities in practical ways.
When the unit noticed initial challenges around the uptake of the HPV vaccine in low-income and minority communities, they showed up in the neighborhoods and asked people questions to understand their perceptions. Then they took those learnings to improve the messaging and explain the benefits, and ultimately the team increased vaccination rates in Black and Latinx communities. Reese also engages corporate partners as a senior advisor at Ichor Strategies to promote wellness and health equity in ways that create wins for both the business and consumer base. “It means research findings don’t just sit on shelves in academic journals—we take what we know about how to prevent disease, reduce morbidity, and improve the quality of life, and implement it so everybody wins,” he said.
“Health equity simply means that everyone has a fair opportunity to achieve positive health, something we should view as a civil right and not a privilege for select communities.”
—LeRoy E. Reese, Ph.D. ’88
“When you look at the epidemiological data, there is a significant difference between Black men and our white counterparts in terms of years of life lost,” said Reese. “We’re not dying from old age. We’re dying from disparities in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, or other things like homicide, that are preventable.” Imagine everyone gets a LEGO box with the same picture on the front, but not everyonegets the same pieces inside. Without all the pieces—things like reliable insurance, affordable prescriptions and co-pays, and regular access to preventative screenings—Reese says some simply can’t achieve the desired health outcomes. “Health equity simply means that everyone has a fair opportunity to achieve positive health, something we should view as a civil right and not a privilege for select communities,” he added.
These disparities in health status exacerbated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities, but Reese argues it also proved that our health is interrelated. When many people have to decide between going to work in service sector jobs or staying home because they don’t have good health care and child care, suddenly more people are impacted. This former CDC scientist says we’d be naive to not expect another virus based on history, but he’s adamant that health equity is the platform on which we can better combat it to reduce its impact on the economy and the quality of life for everyone.
“I think we talk too much and do too little,” said Reese. “I’m hoping we become more activist in how we spend our time, what we do with our resources, and how we relate to one another. Our kids deserve our absolute best.”
Posted in Alumni on March 1, 2022.
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