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National Institutes of Health recognizes Cowart for leadership in eliminating health disparities

January 13, 2009

Michele Barrett
(315) 443-6172

Michele Barrett

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health recently honored pioneers across the country and their best practices models of eliminating health disparities. Luvenia Cowart, Ed.D., R.N., professor of practice in the Department of Health and Wellness in Syracuse University's College of Human Ecology, was recognized with the Health Disparities Excellence Award for her leadership of the Genesis Health Project Network.

Luvenia CowartThe Minority Health and Health Disparities Honor Awards Ceremony was held in mid- December in Maryland as part of the NIH Summit: The Science of Eliminating Health Disparities. It paid tribute to individuals, groups and organizations across the country that have made extraordinary contributions in science, practice or policy toward the improvement of minority health or the elimination of health disparities.

Donna E. Shalala, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; David Satcher, 16th surgeon general of the United States; U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D- Mass.); and Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, were honored with Health Disparities Lifetime Achievement Awards at the event.

The Health Disparities Excellence Award presented to Cowart recognizes outstanding contributions in the field of health disparities that: have significantly impacted a substantial number of people; catalyzed new intersections and interactions among the fields of science, practice and policy; resulted in significant actions that lead to improved health outcomes in health disparity communities; and demonstrated a measurable record of accomplishment in improving minority health or in support of the elimination of health disparities.

"Health engagement in nontraditional settings has made a vast difference in the lives of many. Churches remain the cornerstone of the minority community and are pivotal to the health of those communities," says Cowart. "This national award simply legitimizes these efforts and the commitment of our church pastors, lay health advocates, community partners and sponsors as we continue to fuel the vision to eliminate health disparities among African Americans and people of color."

Launched in 2004, the Genesis Project is part of a larger minority health initiative, in partnership with the College of Human Ecology, corporate donors, government agencies and other regional partners. The multi-year, community-based initiative aims to reduce health disparities, obesity and its related health risks, and to promote healthy lifestyles among African Americans by partnering with community organizations to identify and address health needs in the Syracuse and Central New York areas, though the reach of influence the Genesis Project has had is national in scope.

"The Genesis Health Project Network is truly a model of excellence for communities across the country and a good example of the critical role that communities play in the elimination of health disparities," says John Ruffin, director of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Under Cowart's leadership, the Genesis Project has accomplished numerous milestones in addressing health disparities in African Americans in collaboration with the Syracuse community, including health seminars, fitness programs, educational programs at barber shops, and healthy lifestyle activities with churches and universities.

One of the health promotion programs sponsored through the Genesis Project is the Barbershop Education Program, which has gained national attention and funding through efforts to reduce the prostate cancer death rate among African American males, which is twice that of white males. Many men avoid doctors' offices, but they need to make regular trips to the barbershop. The Barbershop Education Program rotates six to eight sessions at barbershops in Syracuse each year. Educators ask customers if they've been tested, stress the importance of diet and exercise, and offer referrals to community health care agencies where they can get tested at minimal costs.

The barbershops also hand out brochures, show an educational video and hang posters. Many customers have been tested and talk openly about their experiences, which continues the educational cycle. One owner explained he knows of several customers who have had operations because of the screenings. A prostate cancer survivor explained that men feel comfortable there (the barbershop) and they'll talk about topics they might not address in other places. An integral part of this program is the Prostate Cancer Education Council, which is an interdisciplinary advisory group of physicians, educators, government officials, prostate cancer survivors and interested community lay persons that meet periodically to discuss prostate cancer issues and men's health concerns.

Tennis Shoes Sunday is a Genesis Project annual event held with congregants and pastors from nine Syracuse-area churches who participate in a two- to three-mile walks following Sunday services.

The Genesis Project's Campus Community Social Entrepreneurship Program partners Syracuse University with the churches to provide six two-hour workshops to help congregants develop leadership skills necessary to create and strengthen their church health ministries and sustain health promotion planning. Also as part of the Genesis Project, Bridging the Gap: Community-Based Learning Experiences partners SU Health and Wellness students with Genesis Project programs through 25-hour internships. The students, as future health-care leaders, policy makers and practitioners, learn to address health disparities and other major public health concerns that plague poor and underserved populations.

One of the notable changes resulting from the Genesis Project is evident in traditional menu planning for church-sponsored events in the Syracuse area. At nine inner-city churches, most congregants can remember summer picnics and year-round fellowship activities traditionally including fried foods, potato salad, white bread and soda. Now these church kitchens serve baked entrees, tossed salad, whole wheat bread, and one-percent milk or water. Effective January 2008, pastors from these churches have pledged to instruct church food preparers about "Fry-Free Zones," that is, avoiding fried foods at church fellowship events.

Cowart is a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow, with academic interests focused on public health and health education among minorities, community partnerships and interdisciplinary collaborations, and health disparities and mental health issues.

In addition to the thousands of community members who have benefited from programs of the Genesis Project, numerous individuals have been involved in creating and coordinating the project's initiatives, including the program coordinator, Betty Brown, who has been with the project since its inception and instrumental in its ongoing success. A retired registered nurse from SUNY Upstate Medical University, where she worked for 30 years, Brown specializes in radiation oncology.

Also included is the Pastors' Health Council, an advisory group of nine pastors from participating churches in the Genesis Health Project Network. Twenty-five lay health advocates from each of the participating churches are being trained as health leaders for Genesis Project programs in their respective churches and within the community.

Syracuse University's Scholarship in Action vision encourages ways higher education can address the serious challenges ahead locally and globally. The Genesis Project has created a strong foundation to address health disparities locally and, through its national recognition by the National Institutes of Health, has provided a best practice model for other communities to follow.

"It is fitting that Dr. Cowart receive this NIH recognition and award for her consistent attention in teaching, research and practice in health disparities in the African American communities and thus illuminating one of the most serious injustices in the education and delivery of health care in America," says Diane Lyden Murphy, dean of the College of Human Ecology. "Dr. Cowart's work is an exquisite example of public scholarship and Scholarship in Action."

Funding providers for the Genesis Project include Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, Central New York Region; the Rosamond Gifford Foundation; the SU College of Human Ecology; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the New York State Office of Minority Health; the Prevent Cancer Foundation; Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; Wegmans Food Markets; and Amgen Pharmaceuticals.

Other collaborating partners include Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County; Family Ties Network Inc.; Onondaga Community College; the New York State Small Business Development Center; and SUNY Upstate Medical University.

To read more about the Genesis Health Project Network, visit

About the College of Human Ecology at Syracuse University

The College of Human Ecology is dedicated to excellence in professional academic education and integrates Scholarship in Action as a philosophy and method in all of its degree programs. The college brings together a rich history of academic programs whose signatures of social responsibility and justice join new and evolving majors reflective of educating global citizens whose leadership can-and does-change the places and peoples where they live and work.

Previously known as the College of Human Services and Health Professions until it was renamed in 2007, the College of Human Ecology hosts seven departments with strong roots in SU history: Child and Family Studies; Health and Wellness; Hospitality Management; Marriage and Family Therapy; Nutrition Science and Dietetics; Sport Management; and the School of Social Work.

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