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Kean Q&A: Vice President Barbara George Johnson, J.D., Continues ‘Transformative’ Work Through Murphy Appointment

Barbara George Johnson speaks at a podium at Kean

Kean Vice President of External Affairs and Urban Policy and Research Barbara George Johnson, J.D., has devoted her career to creating ‘transformative’ public policy that improves peoples’ lives, with a special focus on the health of mothers, babies and families.

She was recently appointed by Governor Phil Murphy to the board of the Maternal and Infant Health Innovation Authority, a new state authority that will create and oversee a Maternal and Infant Health Innovation (MIHI) Center in Trenton. The authority continues the work of Nurture NJ, a program launched by First Lady Tammy Murphy to reduce maternal and infant mortality in the state.

As the Vice President of Kean’s John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research, Johnson works to improve maternal and infant health and address other issues in New Jersey. She spoke to Kean News about her background; her newest role; and her commitment to “caring for moms, who care for the family.”

Q. Your academic degrees are in public health and law, and you’ve worked in Newark, Trenton and New York City, often focused on mothers, infants and family health care and policy. How do you sum up your work?

I’d like to say that hopefully, my work is transformative, the sole reason I got into public policy. I learned along the way that in order to really make transformational change, you have to engage in impacting public policy to drive integrative social and societal change. 

I’ve always been interested in ensuring that women live healthy and whole lives hence my maternal-child health focus in my educational pursuits. The  conversation on maternal health must include mental health, reproductive health, primary care and support for families and women - also, making sure women are well-educated and have great job opportunities. My focus/lane is working for systems change and integrative policies that impact women’s and children’s health in a positive way.

Q. The Watson Institute creates and supports policy that helps New Jerseyans in areas from environmental justice to health care. Can you briefly describe your work as Vice President there?

The Watson Institute has a number of policy centers, from the Center for Health Policy Development, where the maternal-child health work sits; to the Center for the Urban Environment, the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association Policy Center, Center for the Positive Development of Urban Children and others.

The Institute is, I think, unique in that we have always approached policy development by linking people to policy to ensure that the individuals who are most impacted by an issue are engaged in policy development. The approach is to ensure we are assessing the lives of citizens in New Jersey, and supporting and developing policy that improves their lives. We approach public policy from an integrative perspective, and through a lens of systems change.

Q. You earned your master’s degree in public health, and worked in the field in public health and research. What were those experiences like?

In the early years of my public health experience, I served as the first Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies educator in New Jersey, under a program that looked at decreasing infant mortality for Black infants in the 1980s. I was the educator in Essex County. The program worked to educate mothers and women in general on having healthier pregnancy outcomes, and making sure their infants were healthy, particularly in that first year of life.

When I completed my master’s program, I worked in New York City as a public health advisor for the Infant Health Assessment Program, which involved conducting a longitudinal study of the impact of cocaine on infants born addicted to it during the time that the crack epidemic had taken hold in communities across this country. Babies would be in the NICU, and their moms were often penalized for using crack cocaine, as opposed to having opportunities for substance treatment and detox. There were laws that mandated substance treatment before Mom and baby could be reunited. Many mothers did not return to the hospital after their babies were released, because the mothers could not access substance abuse treatment and as a result were criminalized and penalized for their substance use . Their infants became “boarder babies.”

This experience started to make my wheels churn, as far as public policy. Why were these women penalized, as opposed to having treatment where their addiction could be addressed and could be cured appropriately and the family structure strengthened?

Later, I was director of the Family Life Education Program at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey (PPMNJ). My interest has always been ensuring we have the right policies that provide resources, support and access to quality care and health education for women and children.  My role at PPMNJ tied directly into this interest.

If we are not caring for moms, who care for the family and the babies they bring into this world, what are we doing as a society? 

Q. This brings us to your latest appointment. The Maternal and Health Innovation Authority will oversee the new MIHI Center in New Jersey and continue the work of Nurture New Jersey, launched by Tammy Murphy. How did you feel about the appointment, and how does your work with Watson tie in?

I was honored to be appointed. I think the work happening now, building this Maternal Infant Health Innovation Center, is a critical piece of the puzzle and gets us moving in the right direction in addressing the racial disparities associated with high maternal and infant mortality in the state of New Jersey.

The Watson Institute has been involved in an environmental scan which includes community engagement with those individuals most impacted by the policy we are trying to advance or correct. We give breath and visibility to individuals who live this experience every day. If you’re a woman, a Black woman in the city of Trenton, for example, how are you experiencing pregnancy in your city, where do you seek support and services and how are you treated by health and human service providers when accessing care? That’s how we start, by understanding the current landscape. Throughout the time the first lady has been engaged in this work, a number of Black women have been engaged in summit meetings with her at Drumthwacket. 

The Watson Institute prepared a Phase One report for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to help them understand how women experience and think about their maternal health. That work is informing, the conversations happening at the state level about the MIHI Center.

Q. What are the next steps in terms of the new center?

The hope is it will be built in the city of Trenton, the location based on input from residents and others. However, I’m sure this will be a statewide entity with opportunities to engage and create spaces in other cities, to enable women to have similar access to care and resources. That is the goal and the hope of the Watson Institute.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m thrilled there is visibility around this issue, and an opportunity to create some real public policies that will ultimately positively impact the lives of Black women as they experience pregnancy and give birth in the state. I hope and expect there will be resources, funding associated or attached to this work, so that the gaps in care that are identified will be adequately addressed.