Interview with Manal Aboelata, Prevention Institute

The success of the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles depends on collaboration and input from a wide range of partners involved with community health. We are excited to present a new series of interviews highlighting the people and organizations that are doing important work around the health issues at the heart of the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles. 

For our first interview, we spoke with Manal Aboelata, Managing Director at the Prevention Institute. Manal was part of the Expert Panel that has given policy advice to the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles. Here’s what she had to say:

How did you get started in public health?Manal Aboelata

Public health found me.  I took public health courses while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and knew that there was something I wanted to do with the ideas I was learning about.  The professor of my first course, Health 10, offered me a job as his teaching assistant, which allowed me to mentor students, which is something I love.  From there, I focused my studies on health issues impacting women of color. In my senior year, I enrolled in a course on violence as a public health issue where I met the Executive Director of Prevention Institute, a national organization that works to prevent illnesses and injuries by focusing on policies, health equity and environmental change.  Later, I was hired by Prevention Institute and became the first Program Assistant of that start-up non profit. That experience was foundational in many ways. At a public health conference, I met the man that would become my husband and he encouraged me to pursue my Master’s Degree at his alma mater, UCLA. After graduating from UCLA’s School of Public Health in the Department of Epidemiology, I worked in several organizations before making my way back to Prevention Institute where I am now a managing director.

How do you promote and expand public health in your work?

I work in partnerships and participate in networks where the data, tools and perspective that public health brings can have value.  People who are trying to solve complex problems generally want to find good solutions that make sense. Public health offers some useful ways of looking at the challenges and opportunities in our city, our region, the state and the nation.  I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with people who work in the fields of transportation, planning, health care, natural resource conservation, recreation, and social justice and they have helped me to see ways in which public health is useful to their policy objectives and together we’ve found ways to work on big picture goals—like a more fair and just society–that we share.

Why it is important for Los Angeles to focus on health?

All over the world, great cities are places where people can do fun and creative things, where businesses, art, culture, and natural resources co-exist.  Los Angeles is blessed with so many beautiful natural resources, plus a huge amount of creativity and diversity that makes this a fantastic place to be.  This bounty should be available to all Angelenos, not just some.  An out of town visitor should be able to visit any part of our City and see evidence of civic engagement, commerce, art, culture and visible signs of effective governance whether they are in East LA, the San Fernando Valley or South LA.  A focus on health provides the City with one lens to assess all of its major functions, from planning to economic development.  By taking into account the potential health benefits and impacts of projects and policies, the City has a real opportunity to ensure that public resources are allocated in ways that maximize benefits in ways that drive our local economy without sacrificing human and environmental costs that are all important to the success and sustainability of any great metropolis. .

From your perspective, what are the greatest health issues facing Angelenos?

Health inequity is the greatest challenge facing Los Angeles.  We can look at health statistics in communities or by racial and ethnic groups, one illness or condition at a time, but what we typically find is that the most common and costly conditions are piled up in some places and among certain groups.  So, while it is true that food and activity related illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension are really causing huge amounts of morbidity in certain neighborhoods or among given groups, there is usually a constellation of health issues—and underlying community conditions—driving overall poor health and safety outcomes.  Social determinants of health, like racial and economic justice, impact health outcomes at a root level. If we could commit to a process of undoing systematic inequities, we’d find we could prevent a number of different types of illnesses and injuries at the same time.

What are the greatest opportunities for health in Los Angeles?

To focus public investments in the people and the places that are most impacted by preventable chronic conditions and lacking community safety. In these places, there are bountiful opportunities for residents to come together through the convening power of effective organizations. Together, residents and organizational leaders can build a collective vision for what a safe and healthy community should offer its residents and proactively articulate to city council and staff, to developers and others who want to build health-promoting projects and support existing businesses contributing to the neighborhood vision.  By prioritizing resources in the most impacted communities, the city can simultaneously even out health disparities, begin to chip away at income inequality and create more great destinations throughout the entire city.