It’s been just over two weeks since Damōn Chaplin arrived in Minneapolis to take on his role as the city’s next health commissioner, and he’s hit the ground running.
With over 25 years of experience in public health administration and human-services-related work, Commissioner Chaplin is embarking on the latest chapter of his career in leading the city’s health department which is responsible for nearly 425,000 residents.
Chaplin traces his interest in a public health career to his upbringing in Boston. He grew up in subsidized housing and saw how government policies directly impacted communities of color.
After high school, Chaplin would go on to study biology at Central State University in Ohio and return to Massachusetts for a graduate degree in business at Curry College. As an athlete at Central State, who played football and ran track; things were cut short for him after an injury forced him off the field.
But it was more personal experiences that led him to where he is today. Chaplin lost his father in 2004, and his mother roughly a decade later in 2015. He believes the loss of his parents has underscored the importance of a public health career for him.
“They both passed away way before their time,” he said. “It helped me to begin to look at my life through lens of public health, social determinants of health, and racial health equity.”
Prior to his appointment as the commissioner of Minneapolis’s Department of Health, Chaplin served as the health director for the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he oversaw several different public health initiatives.
During his time in this role, Chaplin led Massachusetts’s Large Cities Coalition made up of the state’s 14 largest cities. He credits the municipal collaboration to the history of the region’s connectivity between state agencies and the private sector.
“I think that’s one of the strengths of the New England area, particularly in Massachusetts, that the healthcare system and the public health system are pretty well integrated,” he said. “I see some of those similar relationships here in Minneapolis.”
As a candidate for the position, Chaplin says that he was aligned with the city’s values, mission, and vision when it came to public health. He was at a point in his career where he hoped to expand his passion for helping people and continue relationship-building at a broader level.
Chaplin was appointed to lead the city’s health department by Mayor Jacob Frey on January 30. The city’s press release stated Chaplin’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his work to combat the opioid crisis were some of the factors that led to his nomination. The statement also references his various leadership roles including his involvement with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), as a director where he represents six states.
Chaplin says that his wife and four children have been supportive of the move. He’s been living in the city since March 15, and has been going through an onboarding process since arriving.
“Everyone has been completely outstanding. The mayor has been outstanding,” he said. While he’s away from work, Chaplin says that he enjoys sparking conversations with Minneapolis residents to get a better sense of how they see the city’s public health approach.
“I enjoy walking around the community getting to know people as the weather warms up. I take advantage of the fact that most people don’t know me. I blend into different areas and ask questions and can be incognito.”
When it comes to tackling the different health issues in various Minneapolis communities, Chaplin is looking to establish lines of communication and learn as much as he will inform.
“Communication goes both ways,” he stated. “It goes one way in our ability to reach out and educate the community, but also our ability to listen and be active listeners in that process.”
During his time in New Bedford, Chaplin was a member of the Massachusetts Health Equity Compact where over 30 Black and Latino community leaders came together to advocate for health equity and healthcare reform. He hopes to continue this bridge-building with different cultural leaders in Minneapolis.
One area that Chaplin hopes to work with local leaders is in combatting the opioid crisis. Before coming to Minnesota, Chaplin co-chaired the New Bedford Opioid Task Force and served on the Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund Advisory Council. He worked to reduce opioid use in marginalized communities and hopes to find ways to replicate that approach here.
“There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all approach,” he explained. “You really do have to get a chance to understand the community that’s most impacted and devise a plan that is tailored toward their needs.”
An area that Chaplin is already looking into is how to allocate opioid settlement dollars within the community to best reverse the impact of substance abuse in these communities.
As he continues to engage more community members in Minneapolis, Chaplin hopes to learn more about what can be done in the public health sector to improve the lives of the city’s residents. “The best that I can do to become the greatest and the best service provider in the area. That’s what we’re gearing our staff up for and that’s what I’m hoping to be able to share with the community,” he said.
As he settles into the role, Chaplin hopes to one day find the time to catch some professional basketball or football games. As a fan of all Boston teams, Chaplin states he has an appreciation for the Timberwolves and the Twins but can never forgo his hometown teams.