“She is the best of us:” Ijeoma Opara and the power of health advocacy
From witnessing injustices faced by her parents to working as a therapist, the YSPH assistant professor’s life experiences inspired her mission to reduce health disparities faced by Black communities.
Giri Viswanathan, Photo Editor
At a young age, Ijeoma Opara realized that speaking up for herself could save her life.
Growing up, she witnessed the health inequities faced by her mother and father, who were frequently in and out of the hospital. Her advocacy stems from the belief that if her parents had been able to advocate for themselves to receive proper medical care, they would still be alive today. Opara — an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health — is on a mission to reduce health disparities faced by Black people.
From leading the Substances and Sexual Health Lab at the School of Public Health to running the Dreamer Girls Project for Black teenage girls, Opara devotes herself to advocacy, research and outreach. She invited nine-year-old Bobbi Wilson on a Black female scientist led tour to help her heal from a viral profiling incident, where Wilson’s neighbor called the cops on her while she was protecting trees from lanternflies. She created the Activist-in-Residence Program at YSPH. When she joined Yale in July of 2021, she knew it would not just be a win for her, but for her community.
“I often reflect on my own positionality, my own identity as a Black woman, as somebody who’s a Yale professor who grew up in an urban under-resourced environment,” Opara said. “When I was a child, I never foresaw that I would even get to this level of education or even this career of being a professor at Yale — it wasn’t even something that I dreamed about because I never saw anyone that looked like me accomplish these things.”
Opara was raised in a predominantly Black area of Jersey City, New Jersey, by parents who immigrated from Nigeria. Growing up, she recounted wanting “to be everything”: a lawyer, a physician — Opara was an advocate from childhood, with a love for defending and debating people.
She was the complete opposite of her mother, who Opara described as “timid” and “submissive.” Unlike Opara, her mother felt that she did not have the power to advocate for herself. She didn’t talk back to her doctors or ask questions. She believed the doctors knew everything.
Opara spent most of her childhood dealing with her mother’s illness, as her father worked two jobs, one as a security guard and one as a child and family state worker. Her mother went back and forth from the hospital, being blind and paralyzed from her condition. When Opara was 17, her mother passed away from diabetes complications.
“People shouldn’t be dying from diabetes at 46, but she did,” Opara said. “I blame that a lot on racism and we see this today, that Black people fare worse when it comes to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, et cetera … racism is a public health issue. Racism kills, and racism can be done by simply ignoring your Black patients or not acknowledging their fears or not acknowledging their concerns, or not being culturally competent enough to be aware of [the need to] reach this patient through a different lens.”
As immigrants, English was not Opara’s parents’ first language. They did not receive guidance on how to prevent chronic diseases or how to advocate for themselves in front of doctors. They didn’t know how to navigate the healthcare system. The medical system did not give Opara’s mother the help she needed to not only prevent, but to properly treat diabetes.
When Opara was 23, her father, who also had diabetes, passed from a heart attack at 57 years old. Before he died, he told Opara that he didn’t care what she wanted to do as long as she had an impact on the world. To this day, Opara follows her father’s advice.
“I was constantly researching ways to be healthy, questions to ask my doctor and unfortunately, my parents had to die for me to know this,” Opara said. “I don’t want people to go through that. I want us as a healthcare system to be more aware of how intimidated patients are, especially black patients, when it comes to medical care.”
Opara knew that whatever she did was going to be health-focused. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a master’s of public health from New York Medical College. Then she got her master’s of social work from New York University, followed by nearly three years as a youth and family social worker.
As a therapist, she worked in an agency for Alternatives to Incarceration, which is an alternative punishment to time in prison or jail given to a person who commits a crime. She spent sessions meeting her clients at their level, inviting them to open up to her in whatever context they felt comfortable, whether that was on a quick drive to a train station or in a booth at McDonald’s.
As she worked with mostly Black and Hispanic girls in New York City, she noticed common challenges they faced around engaging in substance use and sexual risk behaviors. They had trouble managing and identifying healthy relationships and lacked support at the community level. Opara realized the importance of contextualizing Black lives in medicine. A person’s intersecting identities can impact a person’s health, their risky behaviors, how the world views them and their related coping mechanisms.
Drawing on her personal experience as a woman affected by the poor health of Black communities too, Opara realized that she was being pulled towards public health research.
“I wanted to be able to combine my public health background, but also my social work background to be able to be a professor and have this interdisciplinary lens to issues like substance use, sexual health and even mental health — all these issues that impact youth of color uniquely,” Opara said.
Opara earned her doctoral degree in family science and human development from Montclair State University. Now at YSPH, having founded the SASH Lab, Opara’s research targets the prevention of HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and substance use among urban youth.
Opara investigates what positive factors can be developed in youth to achieve better health outcomes for youth of color. This may be acknowledging ethnic pride in community, connecting youth to their neighborhood and empowering them through this level of social support. Positive attributes may be honed through programs, such as encouraging young Black youth to have pride and joy about being Black.
Opara’s work as a therapist aided in her empathetic understanding of the difference between human lives and statistics and in her present research, she continues to implement what is called “Community-Based Participatory Research,” or CBPR: a method of study where researchers and community members operate equally in the research process.
In CBPR, trust and comfort are key. This research method is a way in which researchers like Opara are given the unique opportunity and responsibility to begin restoring trust between the historically marginalized and the research field. Opara pursues CBPR with urban youth to create race- and gender-specific interventions for Black girls.
“Black people have a historical mistrust of researchers, as they should, because of the way that they’ve been taken advantage of and abused for generations,” Opara said. “CBPR was created as a way to bridge this gap between academics and community members, but even deeper than that, too, we’re working with the community members to solve things that they are seeing as problems and to do it in a way that is meaningful to them being as transparent as possible, literally having them have a seat at the table.”
Opara teaches a popular class on CBPR at YSPH. Sitara Weerakoon, a postdoctoral fellow in the SASH Lab, frequently hears students call it “one of the best” courses they’ve taken at YSPH. Weerakoon described Opara as someone who cares deeply about her community, advocacy and mentorship. Opara received a Distinguished Student Mentoring Award from YSPH in 2022.
“She’s so funny and positive and optimistic and bright,” Weerakoon said. “Not only is she a superstar on social media, but she’s just as down-to-earth and welcoming and personable in person.”
Emmanuella Asabor MED ’24 GRD ’22, a graduate student in Opara’s lab, described her as “the kind of scholar and leader [she wants] to be.” Asabor highlighted not just Opara’s ambition and drive but her awareness and transparency in researching the challenges that uniquely affect youth of color.
Opara feels a commitment to helping youth of color, not just because of her own experiences, but also because she recognizes the importance of displaying just how possible it is for them to gain a seat at the table. The visibility of a Black women carrying out valuable research is something that will push more youth of color to realize that they could one day hold these types of positions too.
Opara never had opportunities to go on college tours or imagine herself at an Ivy League school as a teenager. Now here, she wants to create a space for Black girls to feel comfortable in institutions like Yale. Ultimately she hopes to strengthen the pipeline of Black youth to the field of public health research.
Opara invites Black girls to Yale every semester to see her lab, meet her graduate students and get a taste for the field. The first group of girls invited were through her research-community partnerships in urban communities in New Jersey — such as Paterson, East Orange and Newark — which are all predominantly Black and Hispanic. Opara also does outreach work in New Jersey, hosting community health events around substance use, mental health and HIV prevention.
“I wanted to be in a field where I can educate the next generation of public health researchers so that they can understand what it means to be culturally competent, to work with girls of color, specifically Black girls,” Opara said. “So acknowledging their strengths, acknowledging what are the beautiful things of being Black and being a girl in society and [asking] how can we foster this level of strength and infuse that in prevention?”
One of Opara’s prospective projects is a conference where Black girls can come to Yale and get exposure to STEM and public health related fields. This would be a space where Black girls could come from all over the country together in sisterhood and obtain mentorship and learn about careers centered around STEM and public health. Her even bigger vision is to have a research center for public health issues related to Black children. This center would be able to produce evidence-based programs to support Black youth.
Trace Kershaw, chair of the department of social and behavioral sciences at YSPH and one of Opara’s faculty mentors, lauded her brilliance, innovation and ability to mobilize her ideas to conduct research that has large community and social impact. According to Kershaw, she integrates scholarship and theory while also listening to the participants and communities which she serves.
Howard Forman, another of Opara’s faculty mentors, called it a privilege to be in “her orbit.” Describing Opara as “an extraordinary person,” he recognized her willingness to go above and beyond her job description in order to elevate even a single person.
“She’s a reason why you come to Yale, either as a faculty member or as a student,” Forman said. “Because she is the best of us and she brings both scholarship to an area that needs more investigation as well as providing solutions to challenging issues that really affect all of society and particularly urban areas.”
The Yale School of Public Health is located at 60 College St, New Haven, CT 06510.