Sunday, November 7, 2010

Opening Session: Justice is what love looks like

You'll have to give me a minute — I'm still recovering.

It was just intoxicating. Addictive. The kind of empowering high that makes you feel like you can do anything. It was a public health revival and I never wanna leave the tent.

I'm talking about today's APHA's Opening Session, and if you were there, you know what I mean. With a meeting theme of "Social Justice: A Public Health Imperative," you'd expect to feel the compassion, to get worked up. But these were speeches that I'll probably never forget. Public health was on fire today.

Even APHA's own Dr. Georges Benjamin was feeling feisty. In his welcoming remarks, he called on health reform's opponents and those who want to repeal the landmark law to bring it on.

"I have a message to those who want to repeal: Be careful what you ask for," Benjamin said. "There are still 23 million people who did not get covered and we want them in...we have an idea that will lower costs and we want our public option. All I can say is open up the law, make my day."

Dr. B also said opening up the law would present a good opportunity to strip away the restrictive reproductive health provisions that were unfortunately included in the bill.

A few speakers later, audience members stood up to welcome Dr. Bill Jenkins, a longtime advocate to end health disparities who was instrumental in ending the infamous Tuskegee experiment. For four decades, hundreds of black men with syphilis were followed and observed — but not treated for the disease. Local physicians were asked not to help them, they were exempted from military service to avoid treatment and denied penicillin. In Jenkins' words, the "men were followed to death."

People like to think the Tuskegee experiment can't happen again, but it can...and it's up to us to make sure that it doesn't, he said.

"If there are people in this room who are willing to put people before papers, I ask you to stand now," Jenkins implored the room. Everyone stood.

And they might as well have kept standing because a little later in came Dr. Cornel West, renowned civil rights activist and philosopher. It's cliché, but it felt like church...a church of public health. There's the brain of public health and there's the heart of public health — Dr. West spoke to the heart, calling on the audience to help the voices of the suffering to be heard and lamenting that too many of our brothers and sisters have "adjusted to injustice."

"We've seen indifference toward working people and the poor," West said. "Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself."

West said public health workers have a "blues" mentality. Blues music forces us to confront catastrophe, but it doesn't allow catastrophe to have the last word. The blues means catastrophe and sorrow are your constant companions — but it's not about optimism or pessimism, it's about being "prisoners of hope," he said.

Justice, he said, is what love looks like.

"I am going to allow my light to shine," West shouted. "Because I am a member of the American Public Health Association!"

Man, I love public health.

Also, I can't really do justice to this year's Opening Session with words on paper (or on a screen). Check back with this blog later for details on where to find a video of today's Opening Session.

How do you feel after today's Opening Session? Let us know by leaving a comment.

— K.K.

Above, Dr. Cornel West, top, and Dr. Bill Jenkins, bottom, speak passionately to attendees at the APHA Opening Session on Sunday. Photos by Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography


Anonymous said...

Public health revival is right. I don't think I've ever been drawn out of my seat (or inspired to say "amen") quite like that before. It was awesome, inspiring, energizing. I'm totally with you: Man, I love public health.

(Also, I had been wondering where I could see a video of today's remarks. Thanks in advance for posting one!)

Anonymous said...

Amen to that! It was amazing. My first APHA conference - can't imagine anything better.

Walter said...

I was there and it was AWESOME!! The best opening session I think I have ever heard at APHA!! Bill Jenkins was brilliant, inspiring and "in your face" right on target. He made it clear that America manifests class warfare and racism in many subtle and not so subtle ways. And Cornel West was wow, wow, wow! Part preacher, part scholar, and part actor, he had the audience on their feet in a true public health revival meeting. Like they say, you had to be there. Another reason why I love APHA!!

Anonymous said...

I second the AMENs! Will video of this be made available?


Hi! Yes, video footage of the Opening Session will be made available. Check back with this blog for updates on when and where to see it.

Anonymous said...

Drs. Nevarez, Jenkins & West were simply awesome.... right on target in their messages and said what often goes unsaid but needs to be said and heard.It was said and by the audience response - it was heard! I felt like it was a revival of public health! The best opening sessionin 25 years!

Anonymous said...

I specifically came to this event because Dr. West was on the agenda. I am pleased to say that the other speakers in the general session were equally as interesting. I think we all could use a sharp, strong "call to action" at this point and this opening session did just that.

Lisa Maldonado said...


thank you for adding in the missing piece. Dr. Benjamin said that opening up health care reform was an opportunity to fix the restrictive reproductive health restrictions in the bill.

Homer said...

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. The other keynotes were among the better ones APHA has had in the last few decades, but Cornel West- wow, Cornel West- was the best. He made me believe, think, reflect, and act.