Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota generously supports MinnPost’s Race & Health Equity coverage; learn why

Q&A with Minneapolis’ incoming health director 

Damon Chaplin is only the city’s second commissioner in more than 20 years. He said he will be focused on the city’s opioid challenges and health concerns related to homelessness.

Damon Chaplin
Damon Chaplin: “The first 90 days is about learning how work gets done, how business gets done in Minneapolis, and listening, developing relationships and becoming part of the community.”

Minneapolis will have a new health department director, Damon Chaplin, come March 20.

Chaplin is the current leader of the New Bedford, Mass., health department. He was nominated for the position by Mayor Jacob Frey, and the city council approved the nomination at a public hearing for the city’s public health and safety committee in February.

At the hearing, several council members asked Chaplin about his experience and what he could bring to Minneapolis to improve health outcomes in the city.

Chaplin highlighted his interest in the opioid epidemic. He was co-chair of the Greater New Bedford Opioid Task Force, which collected $4.5 million in federal funds to help reduce opioid use in marginalized communities.

Article continues after advertisement

New Bedford’s population is around 100,000, making it approximately four times smaller than Minneapolis.

“So why Minneapolis?” he said during the hearing. “Minneapolis is moving the needle around health and racial equity, climate change and social reform, and I want to be a part of that process that change.”

As a child, he said he experienced the impact that poverty and racism had on the health of people living in urban areas.

“While my parents were loving people, they were uninformed caregivers and unaware of the harmful effects the incinerator smoke in the building and the cigarette smoking was having on my overall health as an asthmatic, which often led to me being rushed to a neighboring hospital for emergency services,” he said at the hearing.

Chaplin is the city’s second commissioner in more than 20 years. He’s replacing Heidi Ritchie, who has served as the interim health commissioner since January 2022. As commissioner, he’ll be in charge of the city’s roughly 120 staff members. His term will expire at the end of 2025.

Council members LaTrisha Vetaw, Ward 4, Michael Rainville, Ward 3, and Lisa Goodman, Ward 7, voted against the motion for his hire.

MinnPost: What were your duties in your previous role as the public health director for the city of New Bedford? Were there particular successful programs that you learned from?

Damon Chaplin: My duties in New Bedford are similar to the duties that I’ll be carrying out as a commissioner (in Minneapolis). To provide, protect and promote healthy living for the residents in New Bedford, protect natural resources and prevent premature death. We’ve had a number of things that we’ve developed in both grants and other types of engagement with community. If you want to talk about programs or initiatives that I’ve started, one of them has been the (Massachusetts) 14 largest cities (project), which began with my work with the Department of Public Health and then expanded over the last six years to include the state’s largest 14 cities as a coalition working together to provide support and resources to the state.

MP: What drew you to Minneapolis?

Article continues after advertisement

DC:  What drew me here was an alignment of mission, vision, values and experiences. Many of the issues that Minneapolis is currently facing around health equity, health disparities, homeless and substance abuse, we are also facing here (New Bedford) and as a result, have developed a pretty extensive cache of initiatives around those areas.

MP: What goals do you have for the Minneapolis Health Department and what timeline do you hope to achieve them?

DC: The first 90 days is about learning how work gets done, how business gets done in Minneapolis, and listening, developing relationships and becoming part of the community. I’m a boots-on-the-ground type of person. I like to shake hands; I like to get to know people. There’s several other key partners that I’ll need to meet with and develop relationships with going forward, both at the state, county and local level. The health department has a number of strategic initiatives that are coming our way, from opioids to accreditation to strategic planning.

MP: Can you tell me more about those specific challenges you think residents and the city face? What health outcomes do you want to see?

DC: What I’ve heard loud and clear is issues around homelessness, substance abuse and obviously issues around health equity and health disparities. We have begun some of that work here in New Bedford, and I hope to be able to expand some of those experiences in Minneapolis. We are beginning to take this regional approach and collaborative approach to homelessness, substance abuse and mental health, and looking to partner with the folks who are in charge of those spaces in Minneapolis to have deep conversations about how we can get to a level of functional zero here in Minneapolis around homelessness. We’ve seen this overlap with our homeless population and substance abuse and mental health. So really looking into developing relationships with those folks within the city who are in charge of … prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery.

MP: Given that Minnesota opioid deaths have been increasing, with a 36% increase from 2020 to 2021, are there ways you think are best to handle that and ways to approach the issue?

DC: I think the first thing is collaboration. Making sure that we are collaborating with organizations within the city, making sure we have a coordinated effort, making sure that we’re implementing the evidence-based practices that are appropriate for the communities. But then also engaging with the communities, particularly our users, and getting an understanding of what’s missing. I think that’s part of what we’ve done in New Bedford with the Opioid Task Force. One of the pieces that we’re understanding is that we have to get closer and more approximate to the problem. We have to develop a better understanding of what the needs are of those folks who are using and the availability of services and resources within the city and make sure that we’re providing access to those resources for the folks who are most impacted.

MP: Do you have experience with community violence prevention? How will that translate to Minneapolis, where crime and gun violence is a concern for many? 

DC: We’ve developed a couple of very unique processes, and we’ve worked with the state to increase our crisis response ability within New Bedford. We work with the police department and other community-based organizations to provide them with support and education and outreach for the community. I’ve been looking to do the same thing, partnering with those organizations and institutions that are authorized to engage with gun violence, youth violence, and general violence within the community.

Article continues after advertisement

MP: Have you thought about the intersection of environmental sustainability and health? Specifically, when it comes to Minneapolis, have you thought about strategies for addressing this, given the more recent example of the Phillips neighborhood or various neighborhoods that have protested against the city for environmental sustainability?  

DC: It’s an important piece. We have to collaborate with those folks who are in charge of community planning and design. It’s going to be important for me to listen to learn and get an understanding of the problem, what the root cause is, and see if there’s an opportunity for the health department to be a partner on either side.

MP: Following the end of your term, what would you like Minneapolis to look like from a health perspective? 

DC:  I would love for the city to be approaching the area of functional zero for homelessness. I would love for us to have a system in place where we are able to end addiction long term, where we have systems set up and programs set up in a way that we can end addiction long term. I would love for us to be in a position to have innovative approaches to health equity and health disparities within the community.