January From The Director post – Understanding others and challenging stereotypes

Hello MPH Students!  Welcome back to the College for what will undoubtedly be an amazing spring semester!! I hope that you all had a chance to rest and be with friends and family over the winter break.  January is a month of new starts and resolutions.  I realized many years ago that making resolutions to eat better or drink more water or get to the gym more days per week were not realistic or sustainable.  Instead I try to spend the first few days of the month thinking about what I can do differently that can have an impact–whether that is at work or at home or in the community.  This year for me the thing that has aligned is focusing my work endeavors on advancing health equity.  What does that mean for an epidemiologist?  Well it means answering questions like Can we learn more about how to measure social determinants of health and health equity at state and local levels?  Can we understand what health equity means in rural communities? Health equity doesn’t miraculously happen in the doctor’s office, so what are the community interventions/programs/policies that are needed to advance the health of all?  Can we understand what areas local communities want to address and how to determine effectiveness?  How can we raise the conversation of what health equity means from social, economic, and political perspectives?  How can we get people at all levels of government to listen?  I think there are many of us at the College, at the University and beyond who are interested in answering these kinds of questions.

Thinking about health equity is not just a conversation for academics or public health practitioners or legislators.  Conversations about equity and social justice happen at home too.  Just a day or so ago, my son came home from school with an interesting assignment–to describe what a stereotype is and then to give examples of stereotypes that he might have experienced.  We are of Indian descent so he talked about some of the stereotypes that people have of people who look like us/sound like us/have names like ours.  There can be positive stereotypes (Indians are all good at math) and negative stereotypes (Indians have funny accents or eat strange food).  But the basic issue is that stereotypes are inherently wrong because not everyone of a particular place or religion or social class or skin color will think or act or be all one thing.  Stereotypes are hurtful and don’t allow us to actually learn anything about the other person. Oddly enough, this was on the same exact day as the breaking news of what our President said about people coming to the US from certain “s——e” countries (I will refrain from using the language that was all over the news but I think you will know what I am referring to).  I won’t go into a diatribe about how offensive and ill-informed and even racist the statement is.  I hope that leaders on all sides will voice disgust at the utter disgraceful behavior that the President has demonstrated and will call for rational and thought out conversation that will inform policy.  I am all for policies that protect our borders and vet who comes into our country but then these policies must apply to everyone who wishes to enter the US, whether from Africa, or Haiti, or even Norway.  The news media claims that the President says these things to play to his base. Perhaps that is what we really need to think about.  Why is there a base that will think positively about this kind of rhetoric and what can we do to change that? How can we show people that health equity and social justice doesn’t just help “those people”, it helps everyone.

That brings me to my last thought for this edition–January 15 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  You will find many events throughout the College and the University in the upcoming weeks.  On January 24 during the Spotlight Series slot, the College is sponsoring The Privilege Walk in conjunction with the showing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech as part of the 2018 MLK Celebration of Human Rights Week.  Please attend.  Be part of the conversation.  Be part of the solution.

We are happy to have you all back and look forward to a great semester!