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Cheri Pies: A beloved mentor and national leader in women’s health and social justice

First in a series on outstanding emeritus faculty at Berkeley Public Health

Twenty years ago, Cheri Pies was working as director of family, maternal, and child health programs in Contra Costa County when her supervisor suggested she attend a lecture at UCLA.

The speaker was Michael C. Lu, then an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine; and the subject was the novel “life course” theory of public health: the concept that intergenerational factors—in addition to genes—convey risks and protections to one’s life from birth through old age.

At the time, Pies was already a national leader in women’s health and social justice. She had worked for Planned Parenthood in the 1970s and written the landmark book, Considering Parenthood: A workbook for Lesbians, published in 1984. But the lecture by Dr. Lu, now the dean of UC Berkeley School of Public Health (Berkeley Public Health), set her on a new path.

“Michael’s lecture on the life course perspective put into a theoretical framework what I had been doing in Contra Costa; improving the conditions of people’s lives, not just focusing on prenatal care, to reduce infant mortality and improve the health of women, children, and their families,” Pies said.

“Lay people had been talking about these issues for decades. But being able to talk about it in the academy with intellectual clout was important.”

Soon after the lecture, Pies launched the Life Course Initiative at Contra Costa Health, broadening the focus of the overall program’s work. Her goal was to reduce inequities in birth outcomes, improve reproductive potential, and change the health of future generations.

“I wanted to completely revamp how we did things; focus on educational goals, financial security and stability for the children, and environmental issues,” she said. “I was lucky to work with a public health director who believed in this direction as well and gave me carte blanche to map a new path.”

At the same time, Pies was also generating interest in life course theory as an adjunct lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

After a few years, she joined the Berkeley Public Health faculty full-time. She has served in many roles there over the years, becoming a beloved mentor to countless students and colleagues. Pies has been nationally recognized many times for her contributions to public health and has published dozens of papers. She stepped down from teaching in June, 2017.

Pies has been a frequent conference speaker and lecturer, and, it is virtually impossible, when watching any videotape of a Pies talk, to listen for more than five minutes before she notes a long list of colleagues and researchers with inspiring her own work. Such eagerness to share credit, rather than compete with her colleagues, has been a hallmark of Pies’ career.

Among her highest honors was the 2018 Maternal and Child Health Bureau Director’s Award from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But what’s always been most important to Pies, as a force for change, has been being a teacher.

“For me, mentoring is the pièce de résistance of being a professional,” she said. “I love mentoring my former students, friends, and young people in my life.

“I was very lucky to have good mentors in my life and career and I feel that I am ‘paying it forward’ with my enthusiasm to identify people’s strong skills, and guide them toward careers and choices that will make them happy and fulfilled.”

“It’s the one thing I have left from my amazing career that I feel I can still do, even though my health is failing,” Pies said, referring to her status as a patient in hospice care, after years of treatments for cancer.

Brenda Eskenazi, Berkeley Public Health professor emeritus and director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, said that Pies “was absolutely adored by all of her students.”

“She takes care of everybody,” Eskenazi said. “If she was someone’s advisor, I never had to worry about that student.” It’s not just her research that is so important, Eskenazi said. “It’s also her philosophy, her teaching and mentorship.”

Lori Dorfman,  Berkeley Public Health adjunct professor of health and social behavior, said Pies was an advocate for all public health students, from her first day on campus.

“She’s been an extraordinary influence for many, many people—especially to students who are LGBT, she was committed to ensuring they found their place in the academy,” Dorfman said.

“Sometimes her advocacy was at the individual level for students who needed support to navigate a system that wasn’t welcoming to them. It’s very much integrated into who she is. No matter who you are, she will try to help you get what you say you want.”

One of Pies’ biggest achievements was overseeing the Best Babies Zones Initiative (BBZ). Conceived back in 2002 by Lu and UCLA’s Neal Halfon, the program was aimed at reducing infant mortality through community transformation. Lu was getting ready to launch the initiative in Oakland, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, when he left UCLA to serve in the Obama Administration. He asked Pies to replace him as chief investigator.

The key to its success, Pies said, was engaging the community, rather than imposing a “top-down” set of goals.

“Without knowing what the community needs, we can not begin to do work that will benefit them in ways they would be meaningful to them,” she said.

Another factor was the Best Babies Zone Initiative’s small scale.

“There are people doing large-scale policy work around structural racism, trying to change policy and practice,” she said. “BBZ is at the other end of the spectrum, going small scale to make change for people who can’t wait for policy change to happen.”

The program eventually grew to nine cities. Pies was pleased at the level of community engagement, which she considers central to its success in identifying the ways in which the developmental origins of health and disease influence health outcomes later in life.

Quin Hussey, Berkeley Public Health’s assistant dean for students, who worked with Pies on the Best Babies Zones Initiative, said Pies was incredibly supportive as a colleague and leader.

“She taught me that you have to give your brain time to integrate,” Hussey said. “You can’t continue to stuff your brain with knowledge. You have to go do something else to give your brain and mind and spirit an opportunity to process things. I share that with students all the time.”

Said Eskenazi, “Cheri has touched so many students, colleagues and communities. Her influence is felt far and wide, and will be for a long time to come.”