Scholar Story: Kevin Jenkins, PhD

It’s a sobering thing to watch people around you not only get sick, but pass away from things that could be preventable.”

Kevin Ahmaad Jenkins was 11 years old when his mother was diagnosed with renal disease. He vividly recalls a doctor telling his mother that she was “on his time now” and that if a kidney came in the middle of the night, he would not get out of bed to do the surgery.

“It was in that moment that I saw inequity happen,” Kevin says. “It’s a sobering thing to watch people around you not only get sick, but pass away from things that could be preventable.”

At 17, Kevin became a print journalist. During that time, he won two national awards and covered Destiny’s Child’s emergence on the national music scene. He still has a picture of himself with Beyoncé, both only 17 years old. As an entertainment journalist, Kevin became an announcer for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team and the basketball, football, and band announcer for North Carolina Central University. He was also the first weekend lottery host in North Carolina.

In 2007, Kevin’s career took a “hard left.” As a broadcaster, Kevin often supported fundraisers and advocacy for public health, racism, and other community issues, but he felt he was not using his writing and academic skills to their fullest. He decided to pursue a Master’s degree in history at the University of Florida, studying the health patterns and medical access of freed slaves in Florida in the late 19th century. For his PhD, Kevin drew from memories of his mother’s kidney disease and focused his research on racism in medicine and how it affects people of color today.

“274 people are killed every single day in health care that look like I do because of racism,” Kevin said, citing a 2009 paper that found that 100,000 Black Americans die prematurely every year due to health inequity. “[Racism] is not some kind of boogeyman, but something that is legitimately responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.”

As a 2017 New Connections Junior Investigator, Kevin is researching how psychosocial stress affects Black people living with chronic kidney disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, Black patients are four times more likely than their white counterparts to develop kidney failure, and research shows that racial inequity has resulted in poorer outcomes for Blacks, who are less likely to be evaluated for and undergo kidney transplant surgery. Kevin’s research through the grant seeks to connect the effects of mental health, stress, and racism on kidney disease.

Along with his New Connections research, Kevin is exploring various aspects of kidney disease, racism, and medicine through several other projects. The Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion, through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, recently awarded him a grant to examine experiences of race, racism, and psychosocial stress for Black men living with kidney disease, “to tie down what it means to deal with racism and stress and how that impacts people living with chronic disease,” Kevin says.

With his book, Due Process, which will be published soon, Kevin hopes to tackle racism and medicine from a researcher’s perspective. He aims to help researchers understand racism, using statistical applied models, rather than theory alone, to quantify racism.

To bring his research to a wider audience, Kevin is developing a documentary with rapper Chubb Rock and other celebrities. “So much of our work gets caught in the tower and it never gets out of here,” Kevin says. “We’re bridging the gap to talk about health disparity in the Black community. We have to do stuff that’s going to get to the average person if we’re really serious about eradicating health disparities.”

Though Kevin has not yet completed his New Connections-funded research, he says the grant has already been influential in helping him do the work he loves.

“Every paper is like a track on an album, I feel like I’m dropping number one hits right now because of New Connections,” Kevin says. “It puts a lot of promise in front of me to know that my next steps are going to be some great ones.”