Personal reflections on the importance of equity in oral health.
By Matt Morton
As National Native American Heritage Month begins and I near the end of my first year on the Arcora Foundation Board of Trustees, I find myself contemplating the journey that led me to serve in this role. Being a Native American on a diverse board has provided a unique vantage point, allowing me to learn about the experiences of other communities and advocate for vital issues that resonate deeply with both my heritage and my passion for promoting equitable access to oral health care.
Unfluoridated water and an ‘inheritance of bad teeth’.
My decision to join Arcora Foundation stems from personal experience. Growing up in unincorporated Thurston County—on the same plot of land my grandmother was born on—I had no idea my life was different from any of my friends in Olympia. We attended the same schools and played on the same teams. My source of water, though, was different. If you’re not familiar with Olympia, let me tell you a secret: “It’s the Water.” Delicious, pure underground artesian wells provided my family with water for generations. It only had one problem: It didn’t have fluoride. With no systemic prevention, caries—the disease that causes tooth decay—were a regular occurrence growing up, and inheriting bad teeth became an acceptable explanation for the common occurrence of dental pain and fillings.
Many years later, as the executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, I witnessed firsthand the disparity a community experiences when access to proper dental care is limited, including the far-reaching implications of diminished overall health. In 2014, I decided to do something about it. NAYA joined an effort to bring public water fluoridation to the City of Portland. While our efforts did not succeed, I became a member of a special task force that brought together fluoride advocates and opponents in the name of children’s dental health. Major water fluoridation proponents—Northwest Health Foundation and Kaiser Permanente—along with the largest in-state donor for the anti-water-fluoridation campaign funded and led the effort. The task force studied the most workable solutions for improving dental health outcomes for children in Multnomah County—where Portland is—and we made both policy and practice recommendations that are still in effect today. By joining the Arcora Foundation Board of Trustees, I’m continuing to address the disparities experienced by my community and so many others. It was Arcora’s inclusive approach to problem-solving that convinced me that my involvement could bring a valuable perspective to the table.
Arcora: a mission beyond dental services.
At Arcora, our mission extends beyond providing dental services; it encompasses a comprehensive, systems-level approach to promote oral health equity. By fostering partnerships with communities and the nonprofits that serve them, health care providers, and policymakers, we seek to implement sustainable initiatives that target populations who sit closest to the disparities. Our focus lies in bridging the gap between accessible care and those who need it the most. We work to ensure everyone has the opportunity for a healthy smile.
Being part of Arcora’s work has not only allowed me to contribute to a larger cause but has also served as a reminder of the transformative power of advocacy. Witnessing the positive impact of our programs on communities that have historically been neglected or underserved has reaffirmed my commitment. It’s not just about dental health; it’s about empowering individuals, fostering dignity, instilling a sense of well-being and community self-determination.
I do this work because of my community and my ancestors. It’s about ensuring that future generations won’t have to endure the same challenges; it’s about paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future. It’s a future where access to health care, including oral health services, is not a privilege but a fundamental human right for everyone. This vision continues to drive me. Together, we can build a future where every smile reflects not just good oral health but of a community thriving in equity and compassion.
Matt Morton is an Arcora Foundation trustee and the president of the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington.
We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at email@example.com.