On January 14, 2022, Sherilyn Duckworth, PhD, MPH officially joined Immunize Nevada as Executive Director. We sat down with this talented and experienced public health warrior to learn more about her background and what keeps her passionate about community health.
Why have you chosen a career in public health?
Sherilyn: I grew up in the Blackbelt region, one of America’s poorest places. Unfortunately, the level of poverty in the region continues to negatively impact residents’ health, employment, food securities, and availability of housing, thereby steadily increasing related disparities. Once I made the connection that one’s zip code can determine one’s quality of health and life, I wanted to do more to improve the lives of populations placed at risk, so I chose a public health career. Public health gives me the opportunity to develop, implement, and manage health promotion programs that positively impact the health and well-being of our communities; it enables me to do more. No matter where I live, I want to improve the health of my community and state.
What brought you to Nevada and Reno?
Sherilyn: Diversity brought me to Nevada and Reno. Equal opportunities for me to grow personally and professionally; equal opportunities for my children to thrive; the outdoors; the climate; Reno’s population — all those things impacted my decision.
For 31 years, I lived in the Deep South in Alabama where many people still believe in racial segregation and institutionalized racism. In the town where I grew up, whites live on one side of town and blacks live on the other. Having been exposed to those things for my entire life and experiencing the negative physical and mental effects, I knew that I could not expose my children to a lifetime of hate and bigotry. So my husband and I moved our family across country. Now, here we are in Reno, Nevada, surrounded by welcoming and supportive communities with a different attitude than the Deep South.
What skills and knowledge from your career experience do you think will be most impactful in your new role?
Sherilyn: I am resilient, and I am skilled in community-based participatory research (CBPR). Being resilient gives me the strength to face work and life challenges and overcome each. Additionally, by utilizing my CBPR skills, I meet communities where they are and recognize the strengths of each partner, I can highlight the most effective ways each partner can apply their strengths during the partnership. This is important because Immunize Nevada works with so many community partners, emphasizing the benefits of CBPR where each partner engages equally.
Furthermore, the knowledge I have gained as a COVID-19 Manager with the CDC Foundation will be impactful in my new role. As a COVID-19 Manager, I maintained organizational relationships and communication with external stakeholders and program partners, provided consultation to local authorities for the prevention and control of COVID-19, managed the investigation of outbreaks, and oversaw data surveillance. These experiences have provided me with a thorough understanding of how the epidemiology of communicable diseases impact our communities, and the knowledge needed to connect our communities to available resources that prevent and control communicable diseases.
What career accomplishment are you most proud of?
Sherilyn: There is no doubt that my suicide attempt could have been prevented. It was not, but I survived. From that experience, my passion to bridge the gap between access to mental health, suicide prevention resources, treatment, and adolescents was born. Managing and leading A Friend of Mind is the career accomplishment I’m most proud of. As the Founder and Volunteer Executive Director, I promote mental health and suicide prevention by sharing my experiences and implementing culturally appropriate programs. I have received several accolades for my work with A Friend of Mind, including a 2021 Rising Star Award from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) National Alumni Society, 2020 Community Impact Award from UAB’s Student Leadership, and 2020 Women Who Shape the State (AL) Honoree. I am proud of these awards because they demonstrate my resilience. I was able to us my pain to give hope to others and show adolescents that mental disorders, suicide ideation, and/or suicide attempt(s) do not define who you are or your future!
What do you see as Immunize Nevada’s biggest challenge?
Sherilyn: Being viewed as a nonpartisan organization is our biggest challenge. It is no secret that political division continues to impede vaccine uptake, particularly COVID-19, an equal challenge being the presence of online anti-vaxxer groups. If this continues, the consequences could impact all vaccination and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in Nevada. It is crucial that Nevada residents view Immunize Nevada as a nonpartisan organization whose ONLY mission is to prevent communicable disease and promote health through science.
What do you see as Immunize Nevada’s biggest opportunity?
Sherilyn: Achieving comprehensive health equity represents our biggest opportunity. Health equity occurs when everyone has fair and just access to health promotion. Although Immunize Nevada is a statewide organization, there are many communities in Nevada that do not receive equal and just access to all services we offer. Thus, Immunize Nevada has an opportunity to make health equity a shared vision and value, increase community capacity to influence outcomes, and foster multi-sector collaboration — all of which promote
s equal opportunities for health.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
Sherilyn: I enjoy volunteering! I enjoy giving back to my community! In 2018, I founded a nonprofit, A Friend of Mind, to promote mental healthiness and suicide prevention awareness among at-risk adolescents and their families. We have several mental health promotion programs including: Peace. Love. Youth in Yoga (PLY2); Question. Persuade. Refer (QPR), a suicide prevention training; Mindful Monday; and Motivational Interviewing with adolescents being served by a detention center. As a suicide attempt survivor, I have learned to translate my pain into help and hope for at-risk adolescents — which is my favorite thing to do outside of work!