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Keeping the Public in Public Health

This post is adapted from a speech originally written for the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health Graduation Ceremony in April 2018.

This past November, a friend and fellow Michigan Public Health graduate texted me to ask if I still volunteer as a doula, as a birth assistant. I quickly replied yes. I’m always excited for the chance to support women during such a powerful experience. My friend explained that he had met a young woman who was very pregnant and expecting to deliver soon. But her husband, an undocumented immigrant, had been arrested. He would likely be deported, and she had no one to take her to the hospital.

Over the coming weeks, I got to know this woman and her two young children. In fact, many people generously donated money and diapers and clothing to get them through. She delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy the day before Thanksgiving, crying tears of joy but also of loss.

We are living in a tumultuous time, and as public health professionals we are on the front lines. Our school charges us to disseminate evidence-based knowledge, to address health inequity by focusing on vulnerable populations, to serve as a diverse and inclusive community dedicated to solving the world’s current and future public health problems.

Whether we are studying the effects of anti-immigration policies on birth outcomes, improving water systems globally, or attempting to reduce violence against LGBTQ youth — we cannot do our jobs without consideration of power on the one hand and oppression on the other. As public health professionals, we know that the burden of disease falls along axes of social inequality — race/ethnicity, gender, economic background, sexuality, nationality.

We have our work cut out for us, and that work is inherently political. Of course, the political is also deeply personal.

I, for one, am studying unsafe abortion. And I must avoid saying the word “fetus” on my federal funding applications, while also navigating the abortion stigma deeply entrenched in my own family. Being from the deep South, I’ve kept my dissertation topic a secret from some of my own relatives — until this very moment.

“It’s much easier to criticize structures and policies and powerful leaders than it is to examine and acknowledge our own complicity in systems of oppression. That inner work can be the most difficult and painful.”

Much of my work focuses on racial health inequities, but I am also a white woman who must work daily to uproot the white supremacy lodged in my own heart and mind. And yes, I volunteer as a birth doula for immigrant families, but I’m also an American citizen whose entitlement is used to justify violence against my own clients.

Photo credit: Brian Lillie University of Michigan School of Public Health

It’s much easier to criticize structures and policies and powerful leaders than it is to examine and acknowledge our own complicity in systems of oppression. That inner work can be the most difficult and painful. This is why institutions dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion still struggle at times with issues of inequity, homogeneity, and exclusion. It’s no coincidence that the same conflicts we see on the national stage are playing out in our own communities. And fixing that requires a willingness to see the political as personal, to be brave enough to acknowledge the wounds we cause and the wounds we sustain.

“The intense pressures we now face are transforming us into something greater. We are speaking our truths and listening to once-marginalized voices. We are organizing in our living rooms and marching in our streets. We are skeptical of our institutions and determined to re-mold them in an image of justice.”

Yes, we are living in a tumultuous time, but it is also a time of great possibility. The intense pressures we now face are transforming us into something greater. We are speaking our truths and listening to once-marginalized voices. We are organizing in our living rooms and marching in our streets. We are skeptical of our institutions and determined to re-mold them in an image of justice.

As we as young leaders venture down new paths, I am so eager to see the ripple effects each of us will have on this world. I know that together we will discover innovative, science-based solutions for challenging and important health issues.

But in this historical moment, I hope we also remember to keep the public in public health. I hope we see public health as inherently political and the political as deeply personal. I hope we contribute equal energy to dismantling social inequalities both outside and within us.

We are works in progress, but we are ready for the challenge.

Elizabeth Mosley was a 2011–2012 Global Health Corps fellow in Uganda. She is a 2018 PhD graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

AMPLIFY

New voices and ideas from Global Health Corps, a diverse…

Elizabeth Mosley, PhD MPH

Written by

I am a public health researcher and practitioner focused on reproductive justice in the US and around the world.

AMPLIFY

AMPLIFY

New voices and ideas from Global Health Corps, a diverse community of over 1000 young leaders worldwide united by the belief that health is a human right. We tell our own stories, honestly and thoughtfully, because this is where our activism begins.

Elizabeth Mosley, PhD MPH

Written by

I am a public health researcher and practitioner focused on reproductive justice in the US and around the world.

AMPLIFY

AMPLIFY

New voices and ideas from Global Health Corps, a diverse community of over 1000 young leaders worldwide united by the belief that health is a human right. We tell our own stories, honestly and thoughtfully, because this is where our activism begins.

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