Nadine Burke Harris is California’s first-ever surgeon general. Burke Harris’ history-making feat follows the creation of the new role in 2019 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The 43-year-old Jamaican American raised in Palo Alto is on a national mission following her appointment to develop “trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed” education programs that she hopes will lead to changes in school policies.
Harris’ ultimate focus is to improve the health of children exposed to toxic stress and trauma early in life, demanding that there are universal stress screenings for all children as part of their regular physical exams.
“The impact of early adversity gets under our skin in a way that can be invisible, but can have profound impacts on health and development over a lifetime,” Harris, who doubles as the founder and chief executive of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, told The Los Angeles Times.
She added: “Ultimately, as a doctor, I don’t spend all day with a child. Part of the treatment is recognizing that everyone in the educational environment has an opportunity to administer buffering care for kids.
“That’s the power of a public initiative. Everyone from the superintendent to the teacher to the bus driver and the person cleaning recognizes and understands this information. When you have a whole community making real change, you can have a big and lasting change.”
Born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1975, Harris is an advisory council member for the Hillary Rodham Clinton Foundation‘s Too Small to Fail campaign. She received her bachelor’s degree in integrative biology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and her medical degree from the University of California, Davis.
Harris completed her residency in pediatrics at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, within Stanford University School of Medicine. After her master’s degree in public health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, she went on to serve a residency at Stanford in pediatrics.
In 2005, she joined the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) staff, where she was tasked to develop programs to end health disparities in San Francisco. In 2007, with support from CPMC, she became the founding physician of the Bayview Child Health Center and medical director of the new clinic.
In a recent interview, Harris spoke about how she viewed her role as California’s first-ever surgeon general, saying she sees it as a public health advocate and that her position is none partisan.
“Science is under attack. Vulnerable communities are under attack. We have a lot of challenges before us. My role is to bring the strongest science, evidence, and expertise. I intend to use my role, the bully pulpit, to shine the light on important health care issues that could change lives and improve outcomes for children and families,” she said.
On top of her priorities, Harris hopes to be able to mobilize partnerships not just in the medical community, but the community at large, with everyday Californians.
“My number one area of focus will be adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. My next important issue is early childhood development — providing kids and families with support systems. When we invest in early childhood, it pays big dividends later. My third biggest issue is health equity. We currently have unacceptable disparities in our own state,” she said.