Healer, mentor, music-maker

Joel Burt-Miller, M.P.H. ’23. Photo by Phoebe Hung, M.P.H. ’23

3 min read

When Joel Burt-Miller arrived at the University of South Carolina Medical School Greenville four years ago, he was dismayed to find he was one of only two Black men in his class of 108 — and determined to do something about it.

Elected class representative for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and president of his school’s Student National Medical Association chapter, Burt-Miller began collaborating with local high schools and undergraduate institutions to create a pipeline for his own medical school as well as other local medical schools. Within just a year, underrepresented students rose from 14 percent to 24 percent of the incoming class, and the number of Black men from two to eight. “I’ve always seen myself as a mentor, and no matter where I am in my educational journey, I have a little bit more to offer those coming behind me,” Burt-Miller said.

Burt-Miller is now a master of public health student in health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a Zuckerman Fellow. For his practicum, he is working as a health policy intern with MassHealth, helping expand mental health services for underserved communities across Massachusetts. “We’re in a mental health crisis right now, and it’s a pivotal moment for us to really address some of the problems that existed before COVID, but are now being highlighted,” he said.

Burt-Miller’s mother and father immigrated from Jamaica in the 1980s, moving to a neighborhood of fellow Caribbean immigrants in the Bronx. Burt-Miller’s childhood was centered in community — as well as a growing awareness of the barriers that prevented people from getting adequate health care. “I saw the realities of different access to healthy foods and medical care in the chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension that my community suffered from,” he said.

As an undergrad at Brandeis University, Burt-Miller took a course in racial inequities in health care and studied abroad in South Africa — experiences that helped to further contextualize the disparities he saw in his youth and ignited his passion to become a doctor. In the years before medical school — during which he recorded a hip-hop album, taught English in India as a Fulbright scholar, and earned a master’s in biomedical sciences at Duke University—he became increasingly interested in how mental and physical health are connected, particularly for communities of color. This interest led him to study health policy at Harvard Chan School.

Burt-Miller’s practicum — bolstering access to mental health services at neighborhood mental health centers—has further fueled his passion for using health policy to affect real change. After graduating, he plans to return to medical school for his final year, then hopes to work in a federally qualified health center.

“My time at Chan has helped me to envision my role in the policy space, as a future clinician seeking to expand access to care,” Burt-Miller said. “It’s really ignited a flame in me, wanting to decrease the stigma around mental health and increase opportunities for access for historically marginalized populations.”

– Michael Blanding