When I was in elementary school, my family lived in Mexico City. The church we attended hosted a monthly, free health clinic where a family doctor and ophthalmologist donated their time and services. The clinics were always full, and often, people walked for days from surrounding villages and towns to attend. My family were volunteers. As I grew older, I was given more responsibility to prepare clipboards and documents, and to make sure they were all ready for patient registration. Little did I know that these small tasks were my first real interaction with public health, which would become a lifelong commitment and passion. I have two vivid memories from these clinics. The first was observing a 70-year-old woman who received her first-ever pair of glasses. She had never seen the world clearly or in such bright colors, because she never had an eye exam or access to glasses. She was giggly with excitement. Another memory was of a young mother of five whose husband had gone to seek work in the United States, but never came back. Reluctantly, she disclosed that she and her children had been eating dirt due to lack of resources to buy food. I remember questioning why, in both cases, these women had not had the same opportunities as others to access care, and why those differences existed. I could not have known then, but much later, these same questions continued to trouble me as a researcher in England and the United States. At the time, I realized I needed to step back from the policy world and gain some hands-on experience with public health projects. Over the last 12 years, I have had the humbling experience of being part of well-baby mother programs in Nigeria, dengue projects in Colombia, violence against women projects for migrant women from Central America, developing training curriculum and courses for public health nurses throughout Latin America, efforts supported by ministries of health to improve emergency medicine access throughout South America and social determinants of health projects in inner city Baltimore. Each of these projects has had a profound impact on my personal and professional life, and with each year, I have watched the field of public health grow and broaden. In the last three years, the worldwide pandemic has dominated the public health stage, highlighting many national, state and local issues that need attention. As we approach National Public Health Week 2023, I would like to invite you to examine a couple of ways to engage in local public health efforts which can have very tangible results. Public health aims to address difficult, large problems which sometimes can seem daunting, but at the core, public health departments, clinical communities, and community power-building organizations each are working with communities that are most impacted by inequitable systems- to advance health equity. So, how can individuals contribute to these larger public health efforts in their own communities? The following are two concrete suggestions:
- Are you aware of the social determinants of health (SDoH) (food insecurity, housing insecurity, social isolation, violence, etc.) that most impact your community? Check out the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin’s Health County Rankings tool which you can visualize health outcomes, SDoH needs at the county and ZIP code level Explore Your Snapshot | County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, 2022 Colorado State Report | County Health Rankings & Roadmaps
- Do you know your community’s history with trying to address health equity challenges or public health efforts? Are there interventions that worked and if so, why? What did not work?
- What community stakeholders or organizations represent community initiatives that align with the needs of your community?
Leverage networks and skill sets:
- Do you have skills sets that potentially could be beneficial to a community organization? Do you speak another language that could assist with bridging gaps in your community?
- Could you volunteer time to assist a community organization which does not have the funding or sufficient human resources to address all the needs of the community?
- Do you have connections within your networks that align with projects, funding opportunities, missions of organizations who potentially could help one another?
The suggestions above are basic, and only starting points, but they have the potential for powerful results. By becoming better informed, we are able to use our powerful personal and professional connections to become more effective advocates for public health.