Philip Alberti

Year of Graduation: 

"When we all have access to the basic things we need to thrive, we all benefit."

For Philip Alberti ’93, a prep-year assembly at Exeter helped spark a passion for social justice work. The speaker, Wellesley College activist and researcher Peggy McIntosh, addressed students about unpacking what she called the “invisible knapsack” of white privilege.

The knapsack analogy wasn’t lost on Alberti. “I knew what she was saying was true,” he recalls. “Growing up, my friend group was pretty racially diverse, and I knew a lot of kids who were treated a certain way that I wasn’t.” He was also beginning to address his feelings as a gay teen who hadn’t come out to friends or family. He looked around Assembly Hall and thought, “These are the people who have the power to change things.”

“It was a seminal moment,” he says. “I realized I could be someone who could help unpack those backpacks.”

Now, as founding director of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Center for Health Justice, Alberti is tackling equity and justice in health. “Health equity is not just about medical care,” he says. “Medical care only contributes around 20% of what makes a person or a community healthy. The other 80% encompasses whether they have humane housing, access to nutritious food, reliable transportation, quality education and economic opportunity.”

AAMC members include U.S. and Canadian medical schools, teaching hospitals and health systems, as well as Veterans Affairs medical centers and academic societies. Traditionally the outsize voices in conversations around health care policy, these organizations have the academic and financial resources to contribute to multisector solutions. “Academic medicine is one of many partners in this process,” Alberti says. “There’s a lot they can achieve by collaborating with others.”

Growing up in Revere, Massachusetts, a working-class community near Boston, Alberti was a self-described nerd who attended private schools through scholarships and perseverance. Exeter was a pivotal experience. He appreciated the Academy’s academic rigor and broadened his worldview during a year abroad studying in Spain; he also appeared in numerous plays and joined Dramat.

Socially, however, Alberti struggled to find his place. “Exeter was a tough place if you’re from a marginalized or minoritized community,” he says. “I was deeply guarded and really aware of homophobia and what that meant.”

Eager to live a more authentic life, he moved to New York City after graduation to attend Columbia University, exploring the city’s comedy improv and theater scene while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After college, he trained as a Shakespearean actor in London, then returned to New York as a working actor.

“My go-to was comedy, but I was getting cast in roles I wasn’t excited about,” Alberti says. “I remember one day thinking, ‘Ugh, I have to go to work.’ That was my wake-up call to explore my social justice passion, which hadn’t gone away.”

He returned to Columbia, ultimately receiving a doctorate in sociomedical sciences, an interdisciplinary degree that, in his case, combined the study of public health, social psychology and social justice. Applying public health principles in local communities led him to a position at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, leading research and evaluation to promote health equity between New York City neighborhoods. Alberti joined AAMC in 2012 as senior director of the organization’s newly created health equity research and policy team. That team’s efforts led to the founding of the AAMC Center for Health Justice in 2021.

Although systemic health inequities periodically receive news coverage, the corona-virus pandemic and the monkeypox outbreak brought them to the forefront. “It’s easy to forget a one-off story or data point about health inequity,” Alberti says, “but it’s hard to forget three years of sustained reporting on inequities around COVID, from who gets exposed to who gets sick, who gets vaccinated and who dies. We’re seeing that now with monkeypox within the LGBTQ community. While more Black and brown members are getting monkeypox, more white LGBTQ people have access to vaccines.”

AAMC is addressing these inequities by engaging representatives from marginal-ized communities and using their knowledge to drive its health equity research and reporting. Alberti and his team are currently focusing on three areas: helping organizations demonstrate they are worthy of their communities’ trust, addressing health inequities for birthing people, and developing the data infrastructure all sectors need to address health inequities. They use the feedback as a basis for developing solutions that can be embedded in organizational, local, state and federal policies. “The true experts are community members who’ve navigated these health injustices forever,” Alberti says. “The challenge is how we walk the talk in community engagement by centering our work in community wisdom.”

His team recruited a Multisector Partner Group comprised of national and community leaders from across the country in areas such as healthy food and clean air, the arts and affordable housing. Their ideas and recommendations make up a new Center for Health Justice initiative called All in for Health Equity, intended to make a larger impact on health justice by “baking in” multisector perspectives. Another initiative, AAMC’s Collaborative for Health Equity: Act, Research, Generate Evidence (CHARGE), brings together health professionals and community partners to design and implement research addressing health care inequities, and supports advocacy efforts.

Alberti emphasizes that anyone can champion health equity. “Everyone has a role to play through community engagement,” he says. “It’s working at your local polling station, coaching your local sports team, and doing all of the things that are a foundation for connectivity and creating opportunity in your community. When we all have access to the basic things we need to thrive, we all benefit. We are all responsible for health equity and for unpacking whatever invisible backpacks we carry.”

Alberti is still tapping into the sense of social justice he discovered at Exeter. “My goal is to have the biggest impact I can on this work,” he says. “It’s personal to me and all of the communities we work with. It’s our lives.” 

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of the Exeter Bulletin.