BAR Awards Profile – Barbara Pullen Smith ’81

2011 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumna Award
Barbara Pullen Smith ’81

Barbara Pullen-Smith ’81 made the basketball team in high school. She was good enough to be a starter, too, but she preferred to sit on the bench so she could talk with people.

So what does she do now, as director of the N.C. Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities? She talks to people. Tonight she receives the Harvey Beech Award for Outstanding Service to her community. Because what she has to say saves lives. She talks to people about the wisdom of regular health check-ups, of vaccines and flu shots, of self breast exams and healthy lifestyle choices. She empowers people to take charge of their health proactively.

Barbara grew up poor, “and I mean poor,” she said, in Littleton, in rural Warren County. The youngest of five children, she was only 6 weeks old when her father died at age 39 of a health condition that might have been avoided had he had access to routine visits to a doctor. But at that time, said Barbara’s brother, Booker T. Pullen (an N.C. State grad, “but we’re still blood,” he said), “especially for men, unless you cut your arm off and were bleeding to death, you didn’t go to the doctor.”

Growing up without a father fueled her desire to devote herself to health care advocacy. “If we don’t make sure everyone has access to the best health care,” she said, “other little girls will lose their dads needlessly.”

Early on in her career she observed the different health outcomes for people who could afford the best health care and those who couldn’t. In her position at the state Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, she works with local health departments across the state to create initiatives specifically for racial and ethnic minorities to ensure they don’t die of diseases that shouldn’t be fatal. The work requires long hours, weekend hours and frequent travel away from her husband and two sons, time for which she isn’t compensated. Her brother said Barbara knows “a job can’t pay you enough money to make you happy. She has a passion for what she does, and she takes the sacrifices she must make in stride.”

After Barbara completed her bachelor’s degree in public health from Carolina, she earned a master’s degree in the same field from Emory University and returned to the Triangle. She and her brother live down the street from each other in Garner, recreating a network similar to that of their childhoods, where their neighbors were also their relatives and everyone pitched in to help everyone else.

Active in her church, St. Matthew Baptist in Raleigh, she established its health ministry and headed it for 15 years before training others to continue its work. As a district representative for the American Cancer Society, she develops local cancer-fighting organizations across a six-county area. Even so, she could not prevent the death of her mother and one of her sisters from breast cancer.

In the nearly 20 years she has been at the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, she has established an mentored prevention education, screening and disease management programs for HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer and other health threats. She has led grassroots organizations into partnerships with universities, research institutions, foundations and state-funded agencies to create initiatives that have affected hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

Barbara’s efforts have earned her a number of awards, but that hasn’t gone to her head, said her longtime friend Peggy Hunter. Barbara doesn’t shy away from public speaking and can think on her feet, giving articulate responses on the spot. She treats everyone with equal respect. “No one is too big or too small for her,” Peggy said.

Over the years she has earned respect and admiration from the community, and though she may not know it, her family takes pride in her accomplishments.

“I’m very proud of what she’s done,” her brother said. “I don’t tell her that directly, because she’d probably start to cry.” Would someone give Barbara a tissue?