Thinking critically about inequities: Highlights from APHA

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This year's annual American Public Health Association conference was filled with folks thinking critically about the inequities facing our society and proposing creative ways to address them. It was held in Washington, D.C., with the city's fall colors forming a beautiful backdrop for the event. But besides the gorgeous scenery, it was the speakers who made the conference memorable and whose messages stay with me now.

I was privileged to listen to nationally prominent public health researchers and activists present their work. Here is a snapshot of a few of my favorite experiences and new ideas learned. Epidemiologist and Harvard professor Dr. Nancy Krieger kicked off a session on discrimination and public health by reporting compelling data linking exposure to racial discrimination to a variety of adverse health outcomes. She employed both explicit and implicit measures to capture a deep understanding of how folks experience and represent their exposure to situations of discrimination.

Following Krieger on the same panel, the University of Washington's Dr. Karina Walters had the room in a hush as she reviewed how historical trauma and acts of microaggression -- daily interactions and messages that denigrate a community or its members -- each diminish the health of oppressed groups, in this case Native Americans. Walters connected her presentation to personal experience, relaying an incident that happened to her when a colleague asked her to deliver a guest lecture in full cultural dress so that she looked "like a Native American." Instead, Walters showed up in her best suit and lectured the entire time about microaggressions and their pernicious effects.

Another panel titled "Popular Protest and Public Health" and organized by the Socialist Caucus was easily the most captivating. A democracy activist from Egypt opened the session, speaking with passion about the unfulfilled work of the Egyptian revolution. He said that although the story has left the western media, the Egyptian people still occupy Tahrir Square because the military dictatorship persists in pushing the interests of the regime despite the departure of Hosni Mubarak.

Later in the session, Dr. Lanny Smith, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, showed slides that revealed the incredible hardships visited upon migrants seeking to work in America and discussed how his work to provide them with medial care often involves protecting them against vigilante violence from groups such as the Minutemen. Rounding out the panel, Dr. Hillel Cohen, a professor of clinical epidemiology and population health at Einstein, spoke about the importance of the Occupy movement as representing the germ of a new society, one not based in capitalist exploitation but one that instead seeks to meet the most basic and important human needs: safety, health, meaningful work, and education. He argued that the public health community should move from passive to active support of the Occupy movement. He walked the talk too: After the session, he promptly led a contingent of conference attendees to the Washington D.C. Occupy encampment at McPherson park just a few blocks away.


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