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Meet Renee Mahaffey Harris of The Center for Closing the Health Gap

Today we’d like to introduce you to Renee Mahaffey Harris. 

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
The goal of my 35-year professional career that has spanned across the government, financial, and public health sectors is to lead the efforts to address the barriers that stand in the way of the everyday health and wellbeing of marginalized individuals. My optimism about this goal has not wavered. Every passing year I seek ways to collaborate with people and organizations to meet the vast needs of the marginalized by galvanizing resources, gifts, and funding to collectively develop effective long-term strategies. I believe in building a culture of health through civic advocacy and healthy living education and supporting communities by equipping people on how to live healthier lives by activating their individual agency, and then demonstrating how they can build on that momentum to teach others to do the same. 

Personally, I have a loving family and am a mother to daughter Sloane, a senior at Northwestern University. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Women have made great strides in corporate America since I started my professional career. There were few women in leadership roles and very few people who looked like me in similar or higher positions. Being the only one (woman, Black woman, Black person) in the room taught me how to be strong anywhere God placed me. I understood that having a voice required me to strategize on how to be heard without being too masculine or fulfilling a stereotype that would hold me back. I worked hard and learned not to accept no. 

Appreciate you sharing that. What should we know about The Center for Closing the Health Gap in Greater Cincinnati?
I am blessed to do this work as the President/CEO of The Center for Closing the Health Gap in Greater Cincinnati, a community-based grassroots nonprofit organization in Cincinnati dedicated to eliminating health disparities in our region. During my first eight years at The Center for Closing the Health Gap, I served as the Executive Director. In January 2020, I was promoted to President and Chief Executive Officer. Our approach at The Center for Closing the Health Gap is to engage and empower African Americans and Latinos to live healthier lives by developing solutions through Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR). We also initiate solutions at the policy level and collaborate with health care organizations to develop and implement evidence-based interventions and innovative programs to deliver our mission. The life changes I have witnessed through our work continue to motivate me to do more. The words of a program participant sum up why I do this work, she said: “I didn’t know there was something I can do to improve my health.” The impact of her words continues to resonate and emphasize the importance of creating a culture of health and personal activation. In my 15 years with Closing the Health Gap, I have witnessed thousands of community residents of color’s stories of health scares, triumphs, pain, struggles, and transformations. I am a partner in public health because I see the potential in meaningful, sustainable interventions that improve the lives of African Americans and Latinx families. 

Before joining The Center for Closing the Health Gap, I held executive leadership roles in the private sector including tenures as Vice President of Community Development with PNC Bank and Director of the Greater Cincinnati Local Initiative Support Corporation. In the public sector, I have worked with former Ohio Secretary of State Sherrod Brown and former Congressman Charles Luken. These experiences led me to and prepared me for the work I have engaged in over the past ten years serving marginalized populations. My team and I change lives by equipping community residents with the knowledge and tools to create solutions for their and their family’s health. 

What was you like growing up?
I knew as early as elementary school that I wanted to make the world a better place. I could not understand why some people were not afforded the same opportunities as others and wanted to rectify it. In the 5th grade, I gave a speech about the importance of each of us being advocates within our communities. From student councils and neighborhood committees to board memberships, I wanted to do my part to make the world a better place. I am so grateful to my parents for encouraging and indulging me. 

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