Sunday, November 16, 2014

APHA Annual Meeting Opening Session: ‘You are the heart of public health’

Joyce Gaufin started her public health career in the typing pool of a state public health department. Today, she’s the president of APHA. The people who inspired her journey? Her parents…and her 60 siblings.

One of those siblings was a blood relative, the dozens of others were foster children that her parents cared for in their southern Utah home. So many of those children, Gaufin told the thousands of today’s APHA Annual Meeting Opening Session attendees, experienced adverse childhood experiences — the kinds of experiences that can set a young person on a lifelong trajectory of poor health and risky behaviors. Gaufin said she remembers one foster sibling in particular who came to her family under a 72-hour protective notice. The child had been burned with cigarettes for wetting the bed. After 72 hours, he was returned to his mother and her abusive partner. Gaufin said she often wonders what happen to that child — a child that society failed to protect.

With experiences like that, Gaufin said she asked her parents: “Why do this work?” They answered: “We do it because we hope we make a difference.” Gaufin looked out at the Opening Session attendees, with emotion in her face, and said: “Isn’t that why you do public health?”

It was one of those Annual Meeting moments when you can feel the energy in the room — that intense, overwhelming feeling of purpose, empathy and resolve to make the world a better place. That’s the kind of Opening Session that kicked off this year’s New Orleans meeting. This was public health passion at its best.

And it didn’t start or stop with Gaufin. APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin opened the session and officially welcomed everyone to New Orleans, chronicling the Association’s longtime history with the unique city. Did you know that APHA and its members first descended upon the Big Easy in 1880 (whoa!), then again in 1902, 1919, 1936, 1974 and 1987. And as we’ve mentioned here before, APHA was supposed be back in 2005, but Hurricane Katrina waylaid those plans. Coming back to New Orleans after Katrina as well as the 2010 BP oil spill, “it’s very clear to me that place matters,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin also touched on APHA’s policy of only holding the Annual Meeting in cities with a smoke-free policy. New Orleans is not one of those cities, but APHA had promised to return to New Orleans after Katrina — “and we keep our promises,” he said. APHA brings $20 million in economic clout to cities with its Annual Meeting, and the Association wants to bring that clout back, “but if you don’t ban smoking, we won’t be back,” Benjamin said. Fortunately, smoke-free workplace legislation is being introduced in the New Orleans City Council this very week — cross your fingers for passage.

“We’re about science, we’re about action and we’re about health,” Benjamin told Opening Session attendees.

Charlotte Parent, director of the New Orleans Health Department, talked about the city’s new initiative, Fit NOLA, which has a goal of transforming New Orleans into one of the nation’s fittest cities by 2018, the same year New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday. Louisiana Public Health Association President Takeisha Davis reported that though Louisiana is rated one of the happiest states in the nation, it certainly is not the healthiest. The state continues to struggle with high rates of obesity, diabetes, tobacco use, poverty and infant mortality. But local public health workers are committed to turning the tide.

“We in Louisiana believe we can be both happy and healthy,” Davis told Opening Session attendees.

Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak took to the stage and promptly got everyone to stand up, stretch their legs and introduce themselves to their neighbors (hi!). New Orleans is a special place for Lushniak — 65 years ago, not far from the convention center, his parents first stepped on American soil. It marked the beginning of an American journey that would take Lushniak to the Office of the Surgeon General.

In that office, Lushniak told attendees that he has two things posted on his bulletin board. The first is the WHO definition of health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The second is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of the 10 biggest public health accomplishments of the 20th century. Lushniak said the two bulletin board pieces remind him of what’s possible and that the nation’s health is our greatest natural resource.

“Without a healthy people, we are nothing; without a healthy people we have no future,” he said. “We cannot afford to fail.”

Shortly after Lushniak, keynote speaker Isabel Wilkerson took to the stage to great applause. Wilkerson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” which tells the story of black Americans’ migration from the American South during the early and mid-20th century. Wilkerson said that while the book took her 15 years to put together and it’s been out for four years, it’s only now that she realizes what the story is really about — it’s about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it.

She gave some heartbreaking and shocking examples of a time not too long ago when black Americans lived in constant fear of violence, when they were subject to arcane laws meant to keep an entire population firmly at the bottom rungs of society. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, it used to be illegal for black and white people to play checkers together. In southern courtrooms, witnesses took oaths using “black” and “white” Bibles — “the very word of God was segregated,” Wilkerson said.

“We chuckle at the absurdity of all of this…but this was no laughing matter,” she said.

It was this persistent caste system, in part, that lead to the great migration featured in Wilkerson’s book. And that migration forever changed America. To illustrate that transformation — and the many names and talents that we would have never known about had millions of black families not left for freer lives — she told the story of a famous athlete. Imagine it’s Alabama in the 1920s, there are two sharecropper parents with nine children. The youngest child is frail and sickly and his parents know he’ll never make it as a sharecropper — the only future that awaits him if the family stays in the South. So, they pick up, take a leap of faith and move to Cleveland. (In fact, Cleveland was such a desired destination at the time, that the little boy’s name was James Cleveland. His parents called him J.C.) His new teacher in Cleveland, however, called him Jesse.

Because his family left the South, Jesse went on to become a high school and collegiate athlete. He eventually qualified for the Olympics, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This is the true story of Jesse Owens. His — and our history — was forever changed because of his family’s migration from the South.

“These people were able to create worlds for themselves and pursue dreams for themselves that would never have been possible (otherwise)…and in doing so, they changed parts of our country’s culture,” Wilkerson said.

It was another energizing and revitalizing APHA Annual Meeting Opening Session. Let’s leave with these inspiring words from Gaufin, who called on attendees to nurture their passion and link it to a purpose.

“You cannot win a social movement without having passion,” she said. “You are the heart of public health.”

Don't forget to check back here in the coming days for video from the Opening Session.

— K.K.

Above photos from top to bottom: Opening Session speakers Isabel Wilkerson, Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak and APHA President Joyce Gaufin. Before the Opening Session began, attendees enjoyed the sounds of Dr. White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band. Photos by Jim Ezell, courtesy EZ Event Photography

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