New York City’s first-ever chief equity officer Dr. Torian Easterling announced this week that he is stepping down.

Easterling, who spent more than seven years at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was appointed by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in September 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis spurred widespread protests.

Last year, the city passed a resolution that designated racism a public health crisis and outlined nine steps for the New York City Board of Health to take to achieve health equity. Easterling will continue in his role until the end of September.

Easterling sat down with WNYC’s Sean Carlson to discuss what he has accomplished during his time in city government and the road ahead for improving health equity in New York City.

The transcript of their discussion below was aired Friday on WNYC’s All Things Considered and has been lightly edited for clarity:

Sean Carlson: What were some of the things that you set out to change about the city's health department when you first stepped into this role?

Easterling: To really ground ourselves in the history of how racism has played into health inequities and shine the importance of why our work has to be grounded in that approach. The other thing is talking about the ways in which we can leverage all of our partners, all to get to our public health goals.

Would you say that you're leaving the role feeling like you've accomplished those goals?

I would say that my role continued on something that has been built. Former commissioner, who is now the New York State Health Commissioner, Dr. Mary T. Bassett, who I coined as the architect for the infrastructure to be bold and courageous around addressing health inequities. I think I certainly helped push the conversation forward.

Now, the New York City Board of Health passed a resolution last year, declaring racism a public health crisis. Can you talk about how the city has rooted out systemic racism within health policy since then? Can you give us a concrete example?

It’s very hard to sort of put a nickel down and say, ‘this rooted out structural racism.’ But I think one thing that was really important about the New York City Board of Health’s resolution, declaring racism as a public health crisis, is signaling that this is still an important issue.

The other thing that was really important was the accountability. This is not the end all be all, but there are more steps that we have to take. One of the things that we were very clear about is to say that our data has to be disaggregated in ways that we can understand who's receiving vaccines by race and ethnicity, by sexual orientation by gender identity, that informs our operation.

When the COVID vaccines were rolled out, there were disparities between racial and ethnic groups early on. Now that we have monkeypox and we're rolling out a vaccine for that, we're seeing some of the same disparities emerge. So what happened there?

We know these inequities are baked in our everyday ways of life. I mean, this is an original sin of this country. And so it is not going to be erased through one pandemic, or one outbreak, or with one resolution.

We know that it's not about just building a vaccine clinic, and then they will come. We have to ensure that we're putting trusted messengers in communities, talking about building vaccine confidence and ensuring people understand that vaccines are safe and effective.

Do you think the city could be doing more to address health inequities?

One is really taking a whole of government approach because quite often, when the government isn't effective, most people who are going to feel that harm are black and brown communities and low income communities. We have the Mayor's Office of Equity — that has not been done before. We have chief health equity officers. And I think that we're going to have to continue to take more steps to make the right type of investments.

Now that you're leaving the role and you can look back on the past few years, can you talk about what the biggest challenge of being in this role was? What would you say to your successor coming into this role or anybody trying to deal with improving equity in health care?

I think the biggest challenge is continuing to ensure that we have the right narrative. When we talk about health, we understand that there are so many intersecting factors that control or impact someone's health, like the quality of their housing, quality of the education that they receive, the parks that they are able to attend.

This really has to be a concerted effort that we all are over prescriptive about how we embed equity and anti racism lens into the work that we do.