Grad Advances Health Policy By Creating Local Connections
Story and photos by Kathleen Joyner
If all politics is local, then so is public health.
And it’s Laura Bracci’s job to bring both together.
As a grassroots advocacy specialist at the American Heart Association, Bracci connects more than 30,000 volunteers—everyday people who are passionate about cardiovascular health — with their local lawmakers so they can work together on issues, such as improving access to health care and exercise in neighborhoods.
“Being able to connect our volunteers to their decision-makers on issues they care about and being able to help them have a voice and share their opinions and then seeing that have a positive outcome really excites me,” said Bracci, an alumna of the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.
“There’s data about how effective it is for lawmakers to hear from their constituents. A face-to-face meeting does have impact. A phone call will have an impact.”
Bracci (MPH, ‘08) is working on a number of health policies across Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Her current projects include working with local government officials in Birmingham, Ala., to expand sidewalks and bike lanes throughout the city and with the city of Atlanta to bolster its smoke-free ordinances.
Georgia passed its Smokefree Air Act in 2005, prohibiting smoking in most public places including restaurants and bars. In 2012, the city of Atlanta passed a local ordinance banning smoking in public parks. But some businesses have found ways around the regulations. Bracci said the next step is to make all indoor workplaces smoke-free, which is the focus of the American Heart Association’s work with the Smoke Free Atlanta campaign.
Bracci admits it hasn’t been easy to win over all business owners or lawmakers, but she believes the power of health education can win out over time.
“I talked to the owner of a bar that has just decided to go smoke-free, and he told me his health was being impacted so much. He was always coughing. He always felt bad. He got colds so easily,” she said. “So, it’s really trying to protect the workers who are in those places.”
Bracci began her grassroots job in August 2016, returning to the organization where she started her career in public health. After earning a bachelor’s degree in health science education in 2000, Bracci moved from Florida to Atlanta and became director of the American Heart Association’s Train to End Stroke program.
The program helped prepare everyday people to complete a marathon while raising money for cardiovascular research, and included classes in nutrition and exercise. Bracci said that’s where her enthusiasm for teaching people about their health and empowering them to take charge of it led her to public health policy.
“Policy starts with health education,” she said. “You have to educate not only lawmakers and decision-makers on why the policy is important but you also have to educate the public on why they should support the policy. You have to educate people about what the problem is and get them to understand how they are being affected, and then you can get them to buy into solutions.”
Bracci has formed alliances with other public health organizations and worked on various policy initiatives, including the placement of defibrillators at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and changing emergency medical service protocols statewide so that paramedics transport stroke patients directly to the hospitals that are best prepared to diagnose and treat them.
Bracci said her master’s degree broadened her interests to include epidemiology, environmental health and health disparities. She chose the health promotion concentration so she could draw from many disciplines and work directly with people.
“I like that human connection,” Bracci said. “In public health, you have the potential to impact large numbers of people perhaps fairly quickly with a policy change. But if you don’t have the health education or promotion part of it, people may never realize a policy passed or why they should care about it.”