The 30th annual Economic Development Conference of the National Organization of Black County Officials was woven with a thread that accented the inextricable tie between education, healthcare and economic development.
During the five-day conference (April 23rd-29th) held in Memphis and Tunica County, Mississippi, that link brought Soulsville Academy students in contact with White House officials and representatives of the Obama administration. The essential connection also was amplified by the presence of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and Dr. Eric Whitaker, a doctor-turned-financial consultant who is used to calling the President and nation's first lady by their first names.
Dr. Whitaker, physician investor and business development consultant for Grosvenor Capital Management, was the keynote speaker during a luncheon at the Rendezvous. Known as a Chicago friend and basketball/golf buddy of the President, Whitaker said he thinks of healthcare holistically, meaning the interplay of health, education and economic development.
"The thing I am going to ask you all to be engaged in – and a lot of you are already engaged – is making sure, in terms of the diversity of suppliers that you do business with, that you help build African-American businesses that can invest in our community," said Whitaker.
Linking his personal history with the worth of county officials, Whitaker said he got inspired about medicine and public health through county hospitals. While in high school, he shadowed an African-American doctor at Cook County hospital. It was the first such doctor he knew.
"He was like Superman, going out windows, pulling in patients...trying to kill themselves...and keeping them alive," said Whitaker.
Referencing the Affordable Care Act – so-called Obamacare, Whitaker said as a result of it there will be 9 million more African Americans with healthcare who didn't have it before.
"It was one of those things that the president could not tout lest it be seen as reparations," said Whitaker.
After his four-year tenure as the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Whitaker joined Michelle Obama at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she was vice president of community and external relations. Whitaker was in charge of the Urban Health Initiative, which was aimed at directing low-income residents away from the emergency room and into neighborhood clinics.
"She (Mrs. Obama) twisted my arm to come work with her. Unfortunately, after I got there, her husband started running for the presidency. So I got there and I looked around and Michelle was gone," said Whitaker jokingly.
Back on message, Whitaker said, "Having a job is probably the most important health intervention we can do. I think it is underestimated."
County officials, he said, have a lot of authority to help African-American and Latino investment firms gain access to capital in terms of pension funds. The idea then is for those firms to invest in myriad community-building ventures such as charter schools and others provided by entities such as the Urban League.
NOBCO Chairman Roy Charles Brooks, a Tarrant County, Texas commissioner, said Dr. Whitaker was correct framing health as an economic development issue.
"Providing people with access to health through the Affordable Care Act is important. Access is important. But it has been said that the thing that will raise the level of health in the African-American community more than any other one single thing is a high school diploma," said Brooks, who was the emcee for the luncheon.
"People who do not have a high school diploma have no hope. And if they have no hope, they are not aware that opportunity exists. We have to be in the hope business. It is our job to create both hope and opportunity."
Saying he and President Obama would push for funding to fix the nation's transportation system for the long term, U.S. Secretary of Education Foxx said that includes making sure the Highway Trust Fund remains solvent.
He made those remarks during a special session in the conference room of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.
"We also want to make sure that we grow our investments and infrastructure, and grow our ability to help communities connect in the 21st Century whether they are in urban areas, suburban areas or in rural areas. This country has to move forward," said Foxx.
Emphasizing the importance of infrastructure investment, Foxx said his appearance at the NOBCO conference was designed to make the county leaders aware of the Administration's thrust.
NOBCO serves more than 3,000 African American elected and appointed county officials in 50 states. Shelby County Commissioner Justin Ford, the host commissioner, lobbied hard and consistently to get the conference in the Memphis area.
The theme for the conference was "The Grass is Greener where you water it." The conference elements featured the 2014 NOBCO Awards. The honorees included: Former Mayor and now charter school operator Dr. Willie W. Herenton; Sara Lewis, former school board member and a Herenton administration appointee; Former Shelby County Commissioner Julian T. Bolton; Ernest "Buck" Owens, president and CEO of Memphis-based Bricks, Inc.; Mississippi's 2nd District Rep. Bennie Thompson; and Mike Espy, former U. S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Also honored were: Alisha Bell, Wayne County Commission; Michael Blake, former White House Liaison, Office of Public Engagement; Aeria Charles, chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims; Craig Gregory, St. Martinville Parrish; and Helen Holton, Baltimore City Council.