Purnell’s research focuses on how socioeconomic and sociocultural factors influence health behaviors and health outcomes and on mobilizing community action to address the social determinants of health. He leads the For the Sake of All project, which focuses on improving the health of all people by eliminating racial inequities in the St. Louis region through the implementation of strategies related to the six areas of recommendation in the For the Sake of All report.
Purnell is trained in both applied psychology and public health. He is a faculty affiliate with the Prevention Research Center and the Center for Public Health Systems Science at the Brown School, a faculty scholar in the Institute for Public Health, and faculty director for Thriving Communities in the Center for Social Development.
Purnell is very active in the St. Louis community, including service on the boards of Beyond Housing, Inc., the American Youth Foundation, and the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is also a licensed psychologist in the state of Missouri and a former director of community engagement with the United Way of Greater St. Louis.
A new 115-page community-driven report on segregation and housing in St. Louis has been released by numerous local partners in the fields of public health, law, fair housing, and community development, including the Brown School’s For the Sake of All initiative.
I teach a course called “Social Justice & Human Diversity” for mostly first-year social work master’s students. It’s been my contention that in order to understand these broad topics, my students must confront history in ways that complicate common narratives about this nation and the broader world, including contradictions between espoused values and actual outcomes for marginalized individuals and groups.
I first sat down to write a piece like this three years ago, when my city, St. Louis, was wracked with the initial convulsions of what would later be known simply as “Ferguson.” I didn’t submit it for publication then. I wasn’t sure it would make a useful contribution. I didn’t know if it would jeopardize other important work I was involved in. I wasn’t confident that people would understand my meaning.
A chief aim of “For the Sake of All” was always to describe disparities in health as more than just a matter of health care. In the hundreds of presentations I have given on our report since its release, I emphasize that health is about much more than doctors’ offices, hospitals, health insurance, and prescription drugs. Those resources are vital to treating illness, but health is also strongly determined by the quality of education, the availability of affordable housing, and the possibility of making a living wage.
For the Sake of All, a Washington University in St. Louis-based initiative working to improve health equity for African-Americans in the St. Louis region, has received a $1.1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to work within St. Louis Public Schools and the Normandy Schools Collaborative.