Clara Richards MPH '17
Clara Richards

Clara Richards wants young professionals to know that it’s okay to not have it all figured out. She’s experienced that herself and says it has made her stronger. She has dedicated herself to helping fellow millennials, who define themselves as creators and builders, to find community and create “expansive impact” through her social entrepreneurship project called The Community Cooperative. She feels this mission is even more important in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It wasn’t a straight shot for me. My generation puts pressure on ourselves that there is a linear progression through jobs to advance your career. It is okay to go from position to position to learn where your strengths lie and learn from each experience because it will make you better.” 

Richards has been an adjunct instructor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, worked for the Asian American Center of Frederick, and is now (by day at least) a program coordinator with the Howard County General Hospital, describes the Community Cooperative as a growing community of passionate people focused on their personal and social development.

As a program coordinator with the hospital, she leads health and wellness clases, which she quickly had to convert to online since the pandemic hit just a month after she was hired. 

“If I can learn Chinese in three months, I told myself ‘I know I can figure out how to deliver the classes in the context of Covid,’” she said with a laugh. 

She is working to build the Community Coop by producing social events and workshops for young people like herself, and hopes to add consulting services such as digital content marketing, branding, project planning and coaching. Some of her initial efforts included a limited series podcast and hosting virtual events including a Brazilian dance class and a Black Voices Panel Discussion: on Systematic Racism and the American Dream. Learn more at https://www.thecommunityco.org/

SPH communications conducted the following interview with Clara in June 2020. It has been edited for clarity.  

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

The opportunity for every community member to access, utilize and share public health resources so that they are preventative as well as effective. 

What inspired you to study public health?

I originally wanted to do pre-med [at St. Mary’s where she was an undergrad], but wanted the interactive experience that I learned is key to public health. I was in the lab as a biology major, but enjoyed anthropology because it is about people and their stories. Once I gave up on pre-med, put a lot of effort in volunteering and figuring out what was important to me and why I did what I did. I realized that all throughout my undergrad career, I was really focused on public health work - programs that enable people to be healthy and well. I did my undergrad thesis on the history of maternal health in Maryland [at St Mary’s], perceptions of labor and ritual of that process. 

I discovered that a Master of Public Health would give me a practical application for what I want to do. To focus on culture and its role in understanding health. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on? 

The biggest public health issue is equity. Evaluating the health and wellness of a population brings up equity. Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter bring up all these issues of access.  

We need to get to the crux of why we have created systems based on inequitable foundations. Even if every person in the healthcare system performed their jobs perfectly, it wouldn’t solve the problem because we have all these root inequities. We should focus on how we can make the system equitable. 

Why did you choose public health at UMD for your degree?

I grew up in Prince George’s county, and knew about the University of Maryland, College Park of course. I applied to many schools, but knew that UMD was appropriate for me financially and because of the departments and courses in the SPH. The tipping point was discovering the Center for Health Equity. Dr. Fryer and Dr. Butler [two of the CHE faculty members] were so awesome. 

It was lovely to be in a department where everyone was so supportive of me to make it real and to succeed. To also have the freedom to try something in a safe learning environment and to be able to fail. I got to work on a healthy eating campaign with the Campus Pantry which was  such an informative process.

How did your degree from UMD’s School of Public Health shape your career goals/path?

My degree changed what I had available to me and made me a much more confident candidate in all that I have done. The degree was less about a piece of paper, it changed how I carried myself and how I behaved with confidence in the world. 

What person or experience had the greatest impact on you during your degree program? 

Dr. Sharon Desmond was great. In her community health class, we had to teach a lesson for the community and as an introvert it was difficult for me to be out in the community, but she was very encouraging. 

Considering the current moment we are in (with the changes brought by the pandemic and the movement for racial justice), what is your vision for how we can create a healthier and more equitable society? 

My vision for a healthier and more equitable society is wrapped up in what the community cooperative is doing - listening and supporting people - and doing that consistently no matter who is watching. 

In my vision, we would have a space that is like the old tv show Cheers - having a support system, a place where everybody knows your name. I want to have equitable access and resources and all you have to do is reach out and grab it.