Institute of Politics

Abdul El-Sayed

Progressive Activist, former Executive Director of the Detroit Health Department & Michigan Gubernatorial Candidate

  • Winter 2020 Pritzker Fellow

  • Seminar Series: “Wellbeing & Public Policy”


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is a physician, epidemiologist, public health expert, and progressive activist. He is the Chair of Southpaw Michigan. His forthcoming book, “Healing Politics” (Abrams Press), diagnoses our country’s epidemic of insecurity and the empathy politics we will need to treat it, and he is the host of “America Dissected,” a podcast by Crooked Media, which goes beyond the headlines to explore what really matters for our health.

In 2018, Abdul ran for Governor of Michigan on an unapologetically progressive platform, advocating for universal healthcare, clean water for all, debt-free and tuition-free higher education, a pathway to 100% renewable energy, and to rebuild the barrier between corporations and government. His bid was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Nation, and Current Affairs. And though he earned over 340,000 votes, he finished second of three in the Democratic Primary.

Prior, he served as Health Commissioner in the City of Detroit, appointed to rebuild the City’s health department after it was privatized during municipal bankruptcy. He was the youngest health official in a major US city. Responsible for the health and safety of over 670,000 Detroiters, the Detroit Health Department became a state and national leader in public health innovation and environmental justice, in one of the fastest municipal public health turnarounds in American history. He was awarded “Public Official of the Year” by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and “40 under 40” by Crain’s Detroit Business.

As a professor at Columbia University's Department of Epidemiology, Abdul became an internationally recognized expert in health policy and health inequalities. He was Director of the Columbia University Systems Science Program and Global Research Analytics for Population Health. He has over 100 peer-reviewed publications that have earned over 1200 citations, including a foundational textbook on Systems Science & Population Health (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Abdul holds a doctorate in Public Health from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, as well as a medical degree from Columbia University, where he was a Medical Scientist Training Program Fellow and a Soros New Americans Fellow. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with Highest Distinction from the University of Michigan, where he was chosen to deliver the student commencement speech alongside President Bill Clinton.

He is a native Michigander who was born and raised in Metro Detroit, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, a mental health doctor, and daughter Emmalee. He enjoys good people, good coffee, good food, sports, and University of Michigan Football. He is a proud member of UAW local 1981 and AFT local 477.


“Wellbeing & Public Policy”

It is impossible to actually save a life. That’s because everybody—to the best of my knowledge—dies. But ideally, only after a long, healthy, meaningful life. And though we cannot save life, we can prolong life, improve life, and provide equitable access to a long, healthy, meaningful life. In this seminar, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed will draw on his experiences at the intersection between politics, policy, and public health to explore how public policy shapes human well-being. Through this frame, we think about how modern systems of healthcare, public health, housing, air & water, and public space shape access to a long, healthy life.

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