IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care (Spring 2)

Spring 2011 Letters

Washington, DC Letter Home

Written by Trustees Fellow Siobhan Brewer with help from HC students Susan Johnson, Jenny Benson, Mindy Lee and Hannah Slater

Social Service versus Social Change: An Introduction to Public Health
On January 16th, 2011, 35 students from colleges and universities across the country descended upon the Nation’s capital to begin a 4 month journey examining the various determinants influencing public health issues around the world.  To start off the trip, we spent 2 weeks in Washington DC  grounding ourselves in local health issues and domestic and global  policies.

The first evening in DC, we were welcomed with a keynote address from civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot. Guyot shared stories about his work as a community organizer and activist for people who have been historically marginalized by the US political system.  A passionate speaker, he left a message that resonated with the group: when working with communities, learn to listen.  Ask questions, listen to the stories, the history, the issues, and the solutions communities identify. He suggested that we refrain from going into a community with preconceived assumptions and ideas of how to “fix” the situation. Instead, build relationships with the community you are working with and listen to what they identify as their wants and needs. This message of listening is relevant not only to the work we will do as future promoters of public health, but as a method to achieve greater understanding about the communities we will be visiting throughout the entire program.

Washington DC is a unique place, especially when examining the determinants that influence health. DC is the epicenter for the country’s decision makers and NGOs working to solve domestic and international problems. Many of the policies and actions that take place in DC reverberate throughout the country and the world. One example of this came through the guest lectures by Ruth Levine of USAID and Robert Hecht, formerly with the World Bank and currently working with Results for Development, two international organizations working to provide health funding and aid to developing countries. Many of us, however, felt most inspired by the efforts grassroots organizations are taking to combat local health issues within the District. The social issues that exist within DC are extreme. HIV and AIDS, homelessness, educational achievement and poverty are serious problems that require immediate action and solutions. We met with community leaders and organizations working to provide housing, educational, health and training services for people effected with HIV/AIDS. Many of the health issues communities face are a result of historical discrimination by political and social institutions. When we broke up into groups to visit various neighborhoods around the District, and were able to observe the vast disparities and segregation found in the nation’s capital. Kiersten Roesemann, a student from The George Washington University, confronted her preconceived notions by visiting a neighborhood typically unexplored by GW students. This experience allowed her to more fully understand the institutional, social, and environmental challenges the neighborhood faces and how these factors influence the health of the community.

In Lawrence Guyot’s keynote address, he discussed the importance of empowering individuals and communities to run their own programs and institutions and lead the way in creating social and political change. This concept of empowerment was reiterated to us through several of the guest lecturers. One afternoon a group of young women from Metro Teen Aids spoke about their work educating their peers about AIDS and STIs and teaching prevention techniques. Not only does this organization empower people to make better choices, but also helps to develop young leaders from within the community to become peer educators. On NGO day we split up and each visited two different organizations that did various types of work such as providing services, examining community/national/global issues, and addressing policies that contribute to these issues. Several organizations work specifically to empower individuals and communities that have historically been powerless. One NGO, N Street Village, provides affordable housing to middle-age homeless women while providing them with skills to advocate for themselves, as well as classes in yoga and meditation, crocheting, and other mental and physical wellness classes. One teacher, a former client of the program, is working to get her life “back on track” while teaching classes at the Wellness Center. Student Ali O’Keefe felt extremely inspired not only by the amazing programs that are empowering these women, but also by the deep care and respect the staff have for their clients. Another organization, Housing Works, is a healing community for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. This organization works to end homelessness and AIDS through advocacy, provide lifesaving services, and bring employment opportunities to community members through several entrepreneurial businesses.

Being in DC, we could not leave the US without discussing the role of influence. The final few days of the program discussed advocating as a way of influencing the policies that affect communities. Dr. Mehret Mandefro, a primary care physician and HIV prevention researcher who worked with communities in the states and in Africa, relayed the importance of taking what you know and what you learn as public health professionals and using those stories to advocate for policies. She encouraged us to advocate on behalf of the communities we may serve in order to bring the silent voices to the decision-making table. On the final day of the program, we participated in a Civic Engagement activity put together by two women who work on policy issues that pertain to domestic and international health. After learning the importance of advocating and citizen lobbying, we went to the Capitol to lobby our House Representatives on the Global Sexual and Reproductive Health Act. Although many of us were not familiar with the bill prior to the training, we were able to provide stories from our experiences in the states and abroad. One student, Hannah Slater, discussed the importance of sexuality education here in the states, as she volunteers as a sexual health educator in the city where she goes to school. Hannah was able to connect her story to the importance of the GSRH Act.

After two weeks of discussing health issues, social services, and models for social change, we were able to fully appreciate the words of Linda from EmpowerDC, a local NGO:

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.”

We left DC with an understanding of the situation within the US, skills to assist communities and influence policies, and a framework to explore health issues abroad.

Next stop, BRAZIL!!!

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
USA, Argentina, South Africa, Vietnam

Prerequisites: None. Coursework in public health, anthropology, biology, or related field recommended. Learn More...

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