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Public health official Barbara Ferrer | Meeting the Minds

She took city job to bridge gaps in care

Although Boston has the best medical facilities in the country, it's a sorry truth that African-American and Hispanic Bostonians don't enjoy the same standard of health as do their white neighbors. For Barbara Ferrer, who took over as executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission this summer, fighting this disparity is her greatest challenge.

"Disparity is a complicated issue," said Ferrer, 51. It's a social ill as much as a medical one, since health is inextricably linked to wealth and to education. Ferrer says that racism, too, is a direct factor in causing chronic stress among minorities, "wearing down the body parts" and causing increased rates of, for example, premature births among black women.

"The solution isn't more prenatal care," said Ferrer. "It's addressing the stress caused by racism."

That's a big challenge, even for an optimist like Ferrer. But her colleagues say she's up to it.

"She doesn't have a top-down, we-know-best approach," says Dr. Nancy Norman, medical director of the city's health commission. "She's effective because she's got an ability to put her finger on the pulse and know what's happening in communities."

As a teenager, Ferrer left her native Puerto Rico to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz, intending to become an educator. After school, she did homeless outreach on Cape Cod, and then came to Boston as a welfare rights advocate.

"I spent 10 years doing advocacy work, during which I realized that government could play a positive role," she says. "Since at its core, government is about caring for the public, I could see myself working on the inside."

Ferrer switched tracks and rose through the state and city public health departments, eventually taking a position as deputy director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

Then, seemingly on an upward trajectory, she switched tracks again. In 2004, she surprised her colleagues by taking a job as a high school principal at a public school in West Roxbury.

"I was getting older, and while I'd had a lot of different experiences, I realized it would be nice to have an opportunity in education," says Ferrer, whose own children graduated from Boston public schools. "There's nothing like working with teens to make you feel vibrantly alive!"

But after three years there ("I've never learned so much!"), Mayor Thomas M. Menino persuaded her to return to city government.

"We share the same values," said Ferrer, who is unabashed about her devotion to the mayor. "He's deeply committed to the issue of disparity, and I like being on his team."

If she could snap her fingers and solve one healthcare problem facing Bostonians, Ferrer says it would be the high levels of infant mortality among African-American babies. According to the city, 12.4 black babies die for every 1,000 born, compared to 4.6 white babies.

"The idea that you don't have an equal chance at life when you're born is deeply troubling," she says. Ferrer believes a solution can be achieved with a "life course" approach. That means helping entire generations of babies, girls, and mothers have good health, so that their babies will thrive in turn.

"We as individuals benefit if others live well," says Ferrer, summing up her philosophy. "My own life is enriched if your life is good.'

Fact sheet

Hometown: Jamaica Plain

Family: Husband, Keith, an urban planner; son, Jesse, 26, a physician in New Mexico; and daughter, Katie, 21, a student at New York University.

Hobbies: Running in Franklin Park. White-water rafting. "I love the water, particularly warm water."

On the selfish reason for good public health: "If a baby is healthy and lives, you buy yourselves years of productivity. That child could be the next Einstein, or president."