By Sarah Colson
Katie Baker is no stranger to success. And with that success comes a long story of obstacles and good, old-fashioned, hard work.
Just in her late 20s, Baker was already an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health and chair of the Interprofessional Education and Research Committee for ETSU’s Academic Health Sciences Center when she took on an additional challenge in 2014.
Baker decided near the end of 2013 she wanted to represent the 4th District on the Washington County Commission. Months later, after walking the neighborhoods of south Johnson City explaining how she would represent voters and why they should pull the lever for her, the Greeneville native and former Niswonger Scholar found herself elected as the sole female commissioner at the age of 29.
“I was at a public health conference when I first became a faculty member,” Baker said, “and I heard this speaker saying, ‘if only our elected officials would listen to us’ and I thought it would be interesting to try to approach public office with a professional public health background to see if not only could I serve as an elected official but if I could get other elected officials to listen to me.”
Even with a degree from Furman University in health and exercise science, a master’s in public health from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and a doctorate from ETSU in public health in community and behavioral health, Baker admits to having difficulty finding her voice during her first few months as commissioner, mainly because she is the only female. Despite encouragement and support from her male colleagues, it took a while for her to feel at home in her seat.
“It was shocking at first,” Baker said, describing her reaction when she attended county commission meetings a few years ago and learned there were only two women compared to 23 men on the commission.
“In community health, I’m surrounded by women, mostly,” she said. “I work in maternal and child health, so this was my first time serving in this capacity with all men. I think my perception of it was that I was out of place. But now, six months in, I go into every meeting comfortable, confident and ready to share my opinions.”
As a former Niswonger Scholar, Baker always knew she would return home after her academic pursuits. Now living in Johnson City, Baker is wasting no time putting her expertise to work.
“The principles we learn in public health leadership map perfectly onto some of the issues we’re dealing with in Washington County and Johnson City,” Baker said. “I’m able to directly apply training and skills I’ve had to problems we face in our community.”
Baker divides her time between meetings for her role as commissioner and teaching health communications to first-year graduate students at ETSU. She described her role as both teacher and mentor as “a pleasure.”
“There is no group more eager or excited or passionate about public health than first year master’s students,” Baker said, “and I get to teach them and train them how to tell their story, how to give their public narrative and convince the people around them to be just as passionate about public health as they are.”
While Baker has certainly climbed the career ladder quickly, her success has not grown out of an easy past.
“I grew up in a household with a mom who was a prescription drug addict,” she said. “She was a well-educated pharmacist, but was in and out of rehab and marriages. I remember even before the age of 10 thinking, ‘I’m never going to allow myself to be in this situation.’ Now that I reflect, most of my decisions have been a direct result of trying to climb out of that.”
Not only has Baker “climbed out” of a difficult childhood, but her mother, who is now the director of impaired professionals for Cornerstone of Recovery in Knoxville, has become one of her biggest sources of support.
“Our relationship is better now than it ever has been,” Baker said. “A lot of my accomplishments are a direct outgrowth of using my strengths to simply survive. Now that I’ve reached this place I’ve always wanted to reach, I want to tell a different story. My story is evolving.”
While some might consider her childhood as less than ideal, Baker’s relationship with her mom was always full of open communication, especially when it came to issues of health. That healthy communication sparked not only her PhD dissertation topic, “Preventing Skin Cancer in Adolescent Girls through Intervention with their Mothers,” but also her interest in health as it relates to women and young girls in the Appalachian region. On Monday, Baker’s committee proposed a two-pronged plan to address prescription drug abuse in the region.
“We’re charged with getting out there to form relationships and see what the community needs,” Baker said.
One step in Baker’s plan to combat prescription drug abuse is focused on workforce development and helping area businesses and industries implement drug-free workplace policies. The second step is to work with the local school systems in primary prevention of prescription drug abuse through education. Eventually, Baker hopes to work with the Washington County and Johnson City schools and commissions to find areas where they might be able to form partnerships.
“Both systems have outstanding programs,” Baker said, “and I think a discussion could be started about which of those outstanding pieces could we focus on and share with them.”
When it comes to her life as a professor, Baker hopes to continue the research sparked by her dissertation. If she secures the grant she and her colleagues are after, it would result in the expansion of a study that would reach across 40 counties of eastern Tennessee.
“My professional ambitions are to grow my programmatic research in mother-daughter health communication,” Baker said, “and we’re looking into applying for a grant that would allow us to launch one graduate course in maternal and child health and to recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds here in Appalachia to pursue careers in maternal and child health.”
When she’s not working to reach women and young children in Appalachia or teaching and mentoring her graduate students, Baker likes to de-stress with yoga, hiking and relaxing with friends. She also has two dogs and a cat whom she loves. Her day starts at 5 a.m. and is full of at least two or three meetings a day. With days full of hard work and a strong support system of friends and family, Baker hopes to take advantage of her four-year term in office.
“I’m really going to sink into these next few years in office and learn as much as I can,” Baker said. “We’re not dealing with partisan issues. We’re trying to figure out solutions that will help our neighbors and so I really am looking forward to the opportunity to slow down, sink in and strengthen the relationships that I’ve begun to form as a result of running and now serving in office.”