Always a multitasker, the School of Public Health alumna has loaded her professional and volunteer plate sky-high since graduation. She leads the City of Berkeley’s pioneering efforts to study and combat communitywide health inequities, while mentoring 30 to 40 undergraduate and graduate interns at the city’s Public Health Division. Off the job, Breckwich Vásquez runs a Peruvian nonprofit that she founded in her mother’s memory.
Breckwich Vásquez traces her incandescent passion for serving the underserved to childhood. She credits the example set by her Peruvian-born mother, who spent 35 years as a public health nurse in a bustling Los Angeles County clinic. “My mother taught me from an early age about service to others,” she says. “You can’t just work on your goals; you have to think about making other people’s lives better.” In public health, Breckwich Vásquez saw a powerful vehicle for doing just that.
She was taking time off in the Peruvian jungle the year after earning her doctorate when the City of Berkeley came calling.
The Public Health Division was creating a new unit—one that would evaluate Berkeley’s health problems and engage residents and city leaders alike in addressing them. Was Breckwich Vásquez interested in heading the effort? After depleting a handful of international calling cards, she decided to pack her bags and head back to Berkeley.
“I went to the DrPH program to take on leadership,” says Breckwich Vásquez, who had spent several years as a health educator and advocate. “This was a perfect fit.”
Though Breckwich Vásquez had no official job description, she nonetheless swung into action as chief of Berkeley’s new Community Health Action & Assessment Section.
Her duties soon became both evident and urgent. In 2007, her unit issued a citywide Health Status Report that revealed sharp disparities in wellness and lifespan among Berkeley’s 105,000 residents across racial, income and neighborhood lines. Among the findings: African American residents were far more likely to get sick and die from hypertension, heart disease, and stroke than white residents.
“It’s heartbreaking that we have our own neighbors and part of our family here in the city who are dying prematurely,” says Breckwich Vásquez. She views the health inequities as consequences of deeply embedded social inequities, mostly notably race and racism. “We can’t forget about the social determinants of people’s lives,” she says.
Her team outlined four priority areas—encompassing everything from supporting healthy pregnancies to managing chronic diseases and preparing for disasters—and met with community members and city representatives to coordinate a plan of action. Among the responses, the city is pursuing a pilot study aimed at reducing heart disease in two hard-hit neighborhoods and is seeking healthier food options for middle-school youngsters at corner markets.
Tanya Moore, co-director of the city’s Chronic Disease Prevention Program, praises Breckwich Vásquez for bringing scientific rigor to her work while building strong connections with residents to truly understand them and their needs. “She really cares about the kind of relationships we have,” Moore says. “This is something she does not just because it’s a job, but because it’s in her heart.”
Student interns from the School have played an invaluable role in the city’s interventions. “They are the workhorses of our program,” says Breckwich Vásquez. Augmenting a thinly stretched city staff, the students conduct research, surveys, and interviews, and are a wellspring of fresh knowledge and ideas.
But Breckwich Vásquez had another motive for bringing interns onboard: She wanted to expose students—particularly students of color—to real-life public health work and encourage them to consider careers in the field. Observing that public health has traditionally lacked diversity in its ranks, she says, “Unless we start bringing in more students who reflect the population they serve, we’ll continue that gap.” She recently extended her outreach to students from nearby Berkeley City College.
“It’s a lot of students to organize,” concedes Breckwich Vásquez. “I did it because I love working with students.”
Former intern Warren Lee says Breckwich Vásquez helped guide him on his public health path. “No matter how busy she was, she took some time out of the day to sit down and talk with me,” says Lee, a 2006 UC Berkeley graduate in integrative biology now earning his master’s at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
DrPH student LeConté Dill says Breckwich Vásquez “has a lot of intuition around the needs of students and is always looking for ways to support her students and her staff.” Dill worked with Breckwich Vásquez first as a city staff member and more recently during a yearlong DrPH in Action program. “She definitely encouraged me,” Dill says.
Beyond Berkeley, Breckwich Vásquez’s dedication to service has reached Peru’s Northern Andes. Her nonprofit, called SALUD Peru, helps villagers improve conditions in and around her mother’s hometown of Ferrer by funding projects initiated and carried out by the community itself. The program has built classrooms, repaired a health clinic, and installed a water system.
“It’s amazing work,” says Breckwich Vásquez, who started the organization after her mother’s death four years ago and visits Peru once or twice annually. “This is something I do for me to live her memory.”
At just 4 feet 10, her mother, Juana Guillermina Vásquez, was a towering presence. The public health nurse gave her all to her low-income patients, many of whom were Latino immigrants, often shuttling them to evening English classes or navigating them through a maze of bureaucratic services. She was a devoted single mother as well.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Breckwich Vásquez spent most days in her mother’s clinic. She called patients into exam rooms, made photocopies, filled out lab slips—and once shipped herself up the dumbwaiter along with a stack of patient files. (“I was kind of curious about where all the medical records went,” she says with a twinkle.)
Those early experiences were formative. At UCLA, Breckwich Vásquez was active in student groups assisting Central American refugees in Los Angeles and community health workers in Mexico. Breckwich Vásquez earned her bachelor’s in Latin American Studies in 1991 and stayed at UCLA for an MPH and a master’s in Latin American Studies.
After working for several years in private and public health care agencies, she concluded that she “wanted to be a decision maker.” And that’s what led her to the School.
Her focus was community-based participatory research (CBPR), a method in which those being studied become active partners in that public health research. Breckwich Vásquez "has a real gift for identifying multiple stakeholders and involving them in the process," says Meredith Minkler, DrPH ’75, professor and director of the School’s Health and Social Behavior Program and a leading expert in CBPR.
Minkler makes a practice of showing outstanding dissertations to prospective graduate students. That’s not the case with Breckwich Vásquez’s thesis. "Her work was so over the top that I rarely show it to students because it’s too intimidating," Minkler says.