Sunday, April 10, 2005

Summit cum laude

April 9, 2005 may turn out to be a significant day, the day a progressive student public health movement began again.

That was the day public health students from around the northeast met at Boston University School of Public Health for the first Student Summit on Defining the Future of Public Health. That it happened at all is significant. That it turned out so well is even more significant. The fake true Revere was there and here's what Revere saw.

The seventy-odd attendees were treated to a spectacular start with a keynote by Judith Kurland, president-elect of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, former Commissioner of Health for the City of Boston, former Region I DHHS Director. Despite these establishment credits, Kurland could be described more as a leftist than a liberal. Her talk was about fashion, horror movies and magicians, namely, the stunning economic inequality in our society that purveys "essential wardrobes" costing $1100 in the New York Times Fashion supplement but simultaneously won't allocate $50 clothing allowances for children on AFDC ("too generous"); replays in real life old horror movie themes wherein a hero or heroine trying to warn of mortal danger is called a nut by the authorities ("global warming"); and where distraction and sleight of hand are used to mystify the public ("war on terrorism").

There followed simultaneous workshops on topics such as "The legacy of health activism," "War and public health," "Public health advocacy," "The US and global public health policy," "Biodefense, bioterrorism and local public health." The current generation was joined by activists of an earlier one, among them: Peter Montague (Rachel's Environmental Newsletter, one of the great heroes of the environmental movement); Dick Clapp, Dave Ozonoff, Tom Webster (now all in the Department of Environmental Health at the BU School of Public Health). Time was set aside for attendees to organize into special interest caucuses so students with particular interests could network. And all came together at the end of the day for a short plenary and a terrific catered Tanzanian dinner at the Community Church of Boston (one of the venerable "movement" churches in the area).

This was a significant event, carried off beautifully by a new generation of public health activists at the BU School of Public Health, to whom kudos are due. Similar events will follow at other schools in other areas, judging from plans and comments we overheard. Let's hope so.

To give a bit of the flavor, here is a small excerpt from the closing remarks:
It is time to rebuild a progressive public health movement. The fact that a handful of students here, students with little organizing experience, few models to show the way or resources to work with, could summon, on short notice, colleagues from all over the northeast says something about a desire and energy that is reasserting itself.

If there is any silver lining to the past election it is that the lines have become more clearly drawn and the stakes more starkly illuminated, stakes as high as have ever been played. Not getting in the game is no longer an option. For many it will be the adventure of a lifetime, something that defines our life and gives it purpose and meaning.

We are part of a long tradition of fighting for social justice and a better world. It began long before we were born and will doubtless go on long after we are dead. We are Links in the Chain.
But what a wonderful chain!