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Joelle Lester
Joelle Lester led partnerships with Black-led organizations advocating for a federal ban on menthol cigarettes. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: New center director continues health equity work

Joelle Lester is continuing to promote health equity — while helping to counter laws and industry actors that negatively affect communities — as the new executive director of the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Lester, who joined the center in 2012, served as its director of commercial tobacco control programs for the last five years.

She led partnerships with Black-led organizations advocating for a federal ban on menthol cigarettes; the Food and Drug Administration last year proposed such a regulation. The center’s other focuses are healthy eating and climate justice.

“I’ve had a great opportunity to live a healthy life and I feel very motivated to help change the structural barriers to healthy living that exist for many communities,” said Lester, who began her new role in January.

Lester succeeded center founder Doug Blanke, who retired in June 2022.

Name: Joelle Lester

Title: Executive director, Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Education: B.A., psychology and women’s studies, University of Wisconsin – Madison; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?

A: I’m very chatty person, so it’s easy to start conversation with me. I like when people tell a good story or if they ask a good question.

Q: Why law school?

A: I was working as a student organizer and lobbyist for public education for about six years after my undergraduate. I learned a lot and I realized that I could have more of an impact if I learned a little more and had the tools and expertise that being a lawyer would provide.

Q: What are you reading?

A: I’m reading a book called “Hamnet.” That’s my leisure reading at the moment.

Q: Pet peeve?

A: I don’t like it when people use others’ ideas or words without attribution.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: We have a unique role in that we are funded by foundations or government agencies to do our work, so it’s free to the advocates and the public health professionals that we serve.

Q: Most challenging?

A: One of the core challenges for anybody in public health is if you are doing it well, it’s invisible. Then people don’t prioritize it, or they don’t understand the importance of having strong policies in place or having a strong public health infrastructure in place until something goes wrong.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: I sing in a community choir. I like to travel. I have two kids and we have a good time having adventures around town and out in the world.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: Probably the Minnesota State Fair. I grew up in the St. Paul area and I’ve taken the most out-of-towners there.

Q: Legal figure you most admire?

A: Sherrilyn Ifill. She was the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund until relatively recently. She was the first woman president and remains an important thought leader and a powerful person.

Q: Misconception that others have about your work?

A: I don’t think that people outside of our field think of law and policy as a driver of health outcomes. When people think about health and law, they think more about insurance access or access to direct services from individual health care providers, which are important. But the companion piece of public health law is critical. It relates to the effective delivery of health care, but it also is bigger than that. It’s about creating healthy communities and opportunities to make healthy decisions. Public health law and policy can affect huge numbers of people.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: I have a recent one and it’s important to me because the author is my brother-in-law. He’s a criminal defense attorney. He works for the Innocence Project. He just published a book called “Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System.” His name is Chris Fabricant. It’s such important work debunking what we think we know about evidence. It’s a very serious topic, but it reads like a novel.

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