Monday, March 28, 2011

Bittersweet Treats

Today, I witnessed first-hand what misinformation and a stubborn attitude can do to positive change: kill it. GWU's Young America Foundation (YAF), and the College Republicans (CR), hosted an Affirmative Action Bake Sale on Kogan Plaza this afternoon. The trend is spreading nationwide. For at least the past two years, conservative organziations on college campuses from the University of Florida to Purdue University have hosted these "fundraisers" charging students of ethnic or racial minorities lower prices for baked goods, while white students pay full price. At today's bake sale, "Asians" were charged the highest, at $1.25 per baked good. There was also a "Human Price", apparently the sponsoring organizations' attempt to equalize the playing field, and symbolize what they were aiming to preach- "equal opportunity for all irregardless [sic] of race" as one student said. Strangely enough, the Human Price was the same as what white students had to pay, so their attempt to appease those in disagreement fell a few steps short of effective.

 The 40+ degree weather chilled the fingertips of members from the NAACP, Black Student Union and Voice Gospel Choir; thier hands ached as they handed out fliers to passers-by, and the bake sale's  sponsoring organizations, inviting them to a panel discussion on Affirmative Action this evening at the Multicultural Student Services Center. Sally Nuamah, BSU co-President, said their main objective was to engage in conversation through an "educational protest." When informed by Student Activities that CR and YAF could not be prevented from hosting the bake sale, and despite a last-minute reschedule from last week's bake sale, Sally and other black student organization officers gathered together to figure out how they would respond. "Their clear intention is to spread ignorance," Sally said. They decided to invite the CRs and YAF to the panel because "our main issue is that they are not giving a complete definition of Affirmative Action."

(left to right) Arielle Ford, Freshman- member of BSU, ACE Magazine, and Voice Gospel Choir; Marcus Hendricks, Senior, member of Voice Gospel Choir; Tori Guy, Freshman, member of BSU; Dominique Bozeman, Second Vice-President NAACP

The Young Americans and College Republicans engaged in lively debates with the protesting students, and insisted that affirmative action is racist. In a perfect world, the Magic School Bus would have appeared right in front on top of the table, and Ms. Frizzle would read her copy of Executive Order 10925, clearing up the common misconception that employers and admissions directors are instructed to select applicants based on meeting race quotas. President Kennedy wrote the order to promote equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin (later added by subsequent Presidents were age, religion, color, and various other elements of discrimination). A few students I spoke with were displeased with what the College Republicans and YAF accomplished. Aleks Marciniak, a junior majoring in Russian, said she has friends who were very upset about the bake sale taking place, and she wished they did something else than this "very simplified version" of explaining affirmative action. CR and YAF explained to her, and any one who would listen that it is affirmative action that creates resentment among students who are not given preferential treatment. But, Gina Bochis, a junior Human Services major, said
she came to the event to see what they had to say and learn more about Affirmative Action, but if anything, the bake sale itself created more division among students.

It was frustrating to have a discussion with folks who were unwilling to hear the rationale behind this policy they so vehemently despise. Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center, commended all the protesting students on their dedication to the cause, and despite some pleas to shut the event down completely, he reminded us that "one of the most important things you do in this period of your life, is argue for what you believe in."  Arguments like "my Italian ancestors made their way in this country without affirmative ation, so why should a black kid who has worst test scores get into a university over a white kid who worked hard to get there?" were thrown out in raised voices, and were mostly met with blank stares. I'll be pleasantly surprised if any of the YAFs or CR show up to the panel discussion- all of them turned down the invitations extended this afternoon. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This Week: Waves of Change

The Washington Post sends Breaking News reports to my cellphone all day long. These reports, Express coupons, bank balances, and AlertDC traffic updates crowd the Yahoo! inbox I've demoted to "important slash annoying emails" status. Last Friday, when I got an alert that Japan suffered an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, and was then struck by a 13-foot tsunami, I shook my head, called His name and put my phone down. Admittedly, ever since Hurricane Katrina, I tend to feel a here-we-go-again feeling every time a natural disaster occurs. I've been desensitized by this incessant email feature, making lives lost seem as unimportant as a quick glance at a cell phone. But, when I saw these pictures, I was brought hurtling back to reality.

My mind was bewildered and full of questions: "Seriously, where is all of that water going to go? Who is going to rebuild all these houses? How are the kids supposed to go to school, what if someone is somewhere having a baby, when are the funerals, what are people eating, where are the doctors...what are they going to do?"

I wish, more than anything, that I had an answer to these questions. I wish I could do more than send a text messaged donation, because what is my measly contribution going to do for a little girl who saw her house, engulfed in flames, swept away by the ocean. When disasters strike, I don't think about it being the end of days. Why think of the end and waste moments that could be the beginning of recuperation? Now, with the threat of nuclear plant disaster, there are brand new problems to solve, amplifying the already unbearable waves of destruction.

Do something. Do anything but sit there and ignore what's happening. The end is not here, and if you're up reading this, it's not near either. You have an opportunity, right now, to make a difference.

Ways to help:
1. Pray. Think nice thoughts. Wish for good things to happen. Spread good karma. Whatever you choose to call it, send some positive vibes Japan's way.
2. Pay. Because money makes the world go round, even though the earthquake shifted the earth's axis.
--Mercy Corps
--Save The Children
Or check Google for even more organizations who are accepting donations.

I know Mother Nature's been busy the past few years, but it's imperative that we treat every situation urgently. Don't become jaded by those convenient reminders that turn news into nuisances. Don't allow (in)famous actors to steal the spotlight from the true stars of the show- our fellow world citizens who are desperately in need of our immediate and heartfelt attention.

*Thanks to for the photos. View more photos by following that link.*

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This Week: U-N-I-T-Y!

Readers, I'm so excited to introduce BPHSN's faculty advisor, Karen Pomerantz, as our guest blogger for This Week. I hope you enjoy the post and are encouraged to become an an advocate for public health across the world, or right here in our own backyard.

From North Africa to the Midwest, conditions for working people are getting worse.  In Congress and state legislatures, Republicans and Democrats have cut funding for housing subsidies, HIV medication programs (ADAP), energy subsidies for the poor, literacy training (Even Start), child care, and education while spending billions to fight wars and prop up dictators.  

Yet, people are not taking this lying down!  Students have shut down the University of Puerto Rico to oppose new fees, and workers have occupied the state house in Wisconsin to protest union busting.  Meanwhile, 10s of 1000s of people in Africa, Iraq and the Middle East have demanded civil liberties, basic services, and jobs.

Why should we care?  As public health students, we know that decent living conditions, such as well paid jobs, employment security, access to higher education, paid sick leave, influence our health and health care.   As employers push down wages and benefits for higher paid workers and slash the safety net, it will be harder for us to enable healthy choices and policies.

We also have a very personal stake.  Most students pay exorbitant tuition rates and leave the University with a burden of debt.  We need jobs and economic security for our own well-being as well as for the public.  For decades, unions set the standard for union and non-union jobs.  But when union workers are forced to take a cut, all working people in the community see their wages, benefits, and working conditions deteriorate.  Employers no longer have to compete for workers by offering better jobs.

Therefore, it is in our interest to support labor actions that demand better – and we don’t have to travel to Wisconsin or Ohio.  Right here in DC are 2 hot labor struggles we can support.
Washington Hospital Center nurses:  The nurses walked off their jobs on a 1-day strike on Friday, March 4 to protest pay cuts in night and weekend shifts and dangerous staffing levels.  Nurses on the picket line described how the Hospital is trying to push out experienced nurses so they can hire new ones with less pay.  The Hospital threatened to cancel clinical practicums if a nursing school didn’t provide scabs for the strikers!  For now, the Hospital has locked out the workers til Wednesday, March 9.  You can join them on their picket lines during this time – let them know public health supports nurses!

Metro workers:  Members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, 7,000+ Metro workers, have been working under an expired contract since 2008.  In 2010, binding arbitration resulted in a contract that increased workers' payments for their health insurance, eliminated retirement health benefits for new hires, and froze wages for the first year of the contract.

Nevertheless, the union agreed to abide by this contract because it included retroactive 3% pay increases per year – bare minimum cost of living increases, which they haven't had since 2007.  Now the court has ruled that Metro workers can’t even receive this small pay increase unless they prove the company can afford it! 
Metro's work force is predominantly African American, meaning that cuts to wages and benefits have a racist effect, hitting black families in our area the hardest.  This group is already disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic, the housing crisis, and cuts and layoffs in public schools.  Metro management also continues systemic racism by cutting bus lines and service east of the river, and threatening to cut late night train service – just when workers in food service, health care, and other service jobs end their shifts.

Workers and riders alike suffer from overcrowded trains and buses, broken escalators, and faulty switches.  Metro operators and engineers are responsible for the safety of their co-workers and hundreds of riders every day.  We cannot protect their health and safety – or our own – by increasing their stress and workload, or blaming the people with the least authority every time a malfunction makes the news. 

Metro workers' wages and benefits help support the entire local economy, especially low-income families.  A minimum wage worker at Walmart, for instance, may depend on their spouse's health insurance from Metro to cover health costs that would otherwise bankrupt the family.

Developers flock to the area around Metro stations because they know they'll make a profit there.  The federal government and businesses like the Verizon Center, Whole Foods, Target, and countless others depend on the Metro system.  If the DC government can afford to offer millions in tax breaks to developers, and the federal government can afford to spend millions every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely enough resources exist to fund the Metro system safely and fairly.

- Celebrate International Women’s Month by supporting the nurses.  Join the nurses’ picket lines at 1st and Irving St. NW til March 9th and check back for updates.

- Rally with Metro workers outside Metro headquarters at the JACKSON GRAHAM BUILDING, 600 5th St, NW (Judiciary Square) on March 10, 8:30am – 12pm to demand that Metro fulfill its contract obligations.  Contact for information.

- Circulate this article.  Talk to your own union, co-workers, student groups, church, and community organizations.  Invite Metro workers to speak with your group about what they experience on the job.  Share with them your ideas and experiences.  Metro workers will meet with public health and GWU students in early April.  Stay tuned.

-          Be critical of media coverage of Metro and the Washington Hospital Center.  Discuss why accidents are part of a systemic failure, not the shortcomings of individual workers.  Think about who benefits by cutting wages and busting unions.  What are the public health implications?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Week: With liberty, justice, (and Plan B) for all

By now, many of you probably heard the news. On Friday, President Obama approved Secretary Sebelius’ partial annulment and revamp of the regulations regarding health professionals’ ability to refuse medical treatment on religious or moral grounds. The treatments in dispute are those of frequent controversy in our country: contraception, abortion, general family planning treatment and HIV/AIDS treatment for homosexual patients. Back in 2005, pharmacists and untreated patients were up in arms over the morning-after pill. As a 2005 WaPo article reported, there were countless pharmacists who refused to dispense Plan B even to married couples, because it violated their religious or moral beliefs. On the other side, were women who wanted to medically and safely stop a pregnancy they had not planned or were unprepared for. Like Kathleen Pulz, who requested Plan B after realizing the condom broke during intercourse with her husband, countless women had to go from pharmacy to pharmacy trying to obtain the medicine, or at least a referral for a medicine they were old enough and responsible enough to use. 

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s leave out those women who rely on Plan B as their main pregnancy prevention. That irresponsibility most definitely weakens the arguments of those who truly need help to be available at all times. At issue are those responsible individuals who have every right to family planning treatment, those who need HIV/AIDS treatment regardless of their sexual orientation, and the healthcare workers who abuse their power and impose an ethics lesson instead of providing medical treatment. 

Opponents to the legislation, like Republican Rep. Joe Pitts who is also a major adversary of the Affordable Care Act, argue that there will be more attacks on the conscience of medical workers. Jonathan Imbody, VP for government relations for Christian Medical Society is worried that health professionals can be fired on discriminatory grounds by those who do not support life-affirming health care. And to them, I say- duh! No, it’s never ok to fire someone strictly on the basis of what, or in whom, they believe. But, it’s also never ok to refuse to perform in-vitro fertilization for a woman because her life partner is a woman and not a man. So what will level ensure fair and equal opportunity to treatment, unless physicians and nurses are made to do their job regardless of whether they agree with their patient’s lifestyle or not? If an accused murder is brought into a hospital with a knife in his chest, it is a doctor’s obligation to save his life. The woman holding the scalpel must do what her medical degree and white coat ensure she can do; whether or not the murderer is dealt justice can be decided by a court of law, or God himself. 

In the new bill, the provisions that protect from prosecution recipients of federal funding who refuse to use those monies to perform abortions or sterilizations were not removed. Also protected are internship or residency applicants who refuse to perform or participate in abortions or sterilizations. No entity that receives government funding is allowed to deny an applicant on these grounds. The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services is still responsible for receiving complaints of discrimination or coercion rooted in the conscience protection statutes. 

In less than 30 days, when the bill becomes law, hopefully we see a shift toward more equality in the treatment of all patients, regardless of their race, gender, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. Wouldn’t you argue that it’s quite hypocritical for someone with such high moral character to refuse to use their talents as a medical professional to help someone in need? It’s hard to play the neutral party in this one, when so many people need an advocate for justice. 

So, what say you?

View the regulations here.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This Week: The Kids Aren't Alright

The epidemic of childhood obesity hit this nation like an over-capacity elevator hits the floor. At their age, school children should not be expected to know enough or have the maturity to make choices that will most benefit their health. Without prompting, some adults may not be able to make those choices, either.  Since most Americans 16 and under spend the majority of their daylight hours in and around a classroom, it only makes sense to incorporate healthy behaviors into their daily school regimen.

The Virginia House of Delegates took a running start in the right direction with their new bill. If signed into law, by 2014, there will be a mandatory 150 minutes per week of physical education in all Virginia public elementary and middle schools. I’m not by any means a full-fledged grown-up, but the world of difference I see makes me feel like it was lifetimes ago that my mother had to force me to come inside from our street hockey games. Now the flick of a wrist is made with a virtual hockey stick, from the comfort of the family room. The way I grew up, kids didn’t have choices. Those who knew better, taught us to do better. I hope we realize that someone has to come up with a solution and actually do something about, instead of just talking about, childhood obesity. We can’t watch documentaries and talk shows and pity “those people”, when those people are growing (in size and quantity) every day. Airlines offended us when they made overweight individuals pay for more than one seat on a flight. We watch, from our couches no less, with amusement as our fellow Americans vie to be the biggest loser. Virginia took matters into its own hands when television shows and airline fines did not do the trick. As Americans, we are probably most sensitive about people telling us how to raise our kids. Well, 31% of Virginian 10-17 year olds obese or overweight is not anything to brag about. As Delegate James M. Scott said, “parents need a little help.” So, why not change the status quo? 

The opposing team is mostly comprised of school officials who are worried about what the cost of these new mandates will do to already shrinking school budgets. If kids’ waistlines aren’t shrinking, there really is no argument to be made. When mortality from diabetes and heart disease is not shrinking, there is no argument to be made. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a lofty paycheck to supervise a game of basketball, as substitute teachers do it in the place of “PE Coaches” every day. It may sound to some like big government infringing on our personal freedoms. To others, it may be the sound of fewer nickels rubbing together in their pockets. But, to me, 150 minutes a week of sweaty 6th graders’ sneakers wearing out a gymnasium floor sounds like a healthier nation. Game on!

Monday, February 7, 2011

This Week: The State of the (Dis)Union

Happy Black History Month, everyone. Another year, another 3rd grade class memorizing the "I Have a Dream" speech. The Super Bowl this weekend will be sure to feature ads about the American spirit, supporting our troops, and of course a stellar national anthem before kickoff. This is one of those days of the year when all Americans come together to do what we do best- eat and cheer for our team! Like the fabric of the Super Bowl team uniforms, our nation is comprised of every shade from black and white to yellow and green.

The theme of the George Washington University's 2011 Black History Month celebration is Marked, and is supposed to serve as a springboard for discussion about all of the different ways in which black Americans have been marked and "how they're still signaled [sic] out today". Our markings come from an incomplete portray by the media of what it means to be African-American. Even the first edition of the highly celebrated CNN Black in America special showed more of the desolation and desperation that black Americans face in the country, than it did of the triumphs and achievements. In a public health setting, black Americans are often marked by statistics showing immense disparity between us and every other race represented in this nation. From HIV/AIDS prevalence to low birth weight, black Americans consistently come out in last place.

Labels and markings have also spurred disagreement within the black community itself. Forgetting for a moment that there is strength in numbers, we pit good hair against nappy hair, light skin over dark skin, and even immigrant blacks over African-Americans. Is there a need for one group to assimilate entirely just because our ancestral origin is the same? Absolutely not. We know that collard greens and calaloo may come from the same plant, but taste entirely different. The African diaspora is the same way. Our roots are the same, but we've sprouted into individually thriving and uniquely beautiful plants. The most important thing that we have in common is that we call the United States home. So, different as we may be, that fabric would be weaker without the thread that each and every one of us contributes.

Simply blaming "the media" for an inaccurate portrayl or ignorant perspective is not enough. We will make no changes by pointing fingers or waving white flags. Opening up the floor for discussion is a great start. Even in a recent BPHSN meeting, the topic was raised about how to have these real conversations with individuals who may have never been exposed to anything or anyone outside of their comfort zone. In the classroom, the library or student lounge, there are opportunities for globilization even among those with whom we share a building every day. Further, we should feel free to speak candidly about what it is that makes us different, and how our individual contributions have strengthened the nation as a whole. That, I believe, is really what Black History Month is all about. Learning our history, reciting speeches and singing the Negro National Anthem are all ways in which we can honor and celebrate our past. Moving forward, we must all individually contribute to building understanding so that our future is just as rich.  The work we have to do is what our kids will learn about and reenact during their Black History Month celebrations. Let us have patience to teach others about where we've come from, where we are, and then show them where we are going.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Week: Help is a Phone Call Away

"It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." - e.e. cummings

We often associate youth with a healthy appetite for life. In these moments, which we’ll eventually refer to as the good ol’ days, we have an unwavering devotion to not only having fun, but ambitiously pursuing our goals.  While these characteristics can often lead to a fulfilling 80+ years on Earth, the pressure of maintaining a social life and thriving career is often a major source of stress, which can easily lead to depression. While we know “everyone’s dealing with it”, sometimes that reassurance is not enough to quell the feelings of being overwhelmed. In 2007, both the CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health cited depression as a major risk factor for suicide, particularly among young Black males. 2008 studies showed that rates had again started to rise, when the previous level of stability was reached in 2003 after a sharp increase in the '80s and '90s. In 2008, you may have heard about a 19-year old named Abraham Biggs, who committed suicide by overdosing while a populated chat room watched via webcam.  You would think that as students, (as individuals between ages 15-24 usually are) who have access to free or discounted health care services on campus, we would have no problem combating depression and other mental illnesses. Suicide rates should be low among our age-group, because we have such ease of access to care, right?

Wrong. The stigma associated with mental illness sometimes causes an even bigger barrier to healing than does access to care. The African-American community has an especially negative outlook on mental illness, which could spur from a number of different cultural influences. Dr. Annelle Primm, deputy Medical Director for the American Psychiatric Association, once cited the religious and spiritual center among many African-American families as a barrier to acceptance of mental illness. There is an association of an inability to deal with depression and sadness with a lack of faith. A large challenge for Black males is a heavy emphasis on masculinity; with the struggles that African-Americans face on a day-to-day basis as a minority population, Black men often serve as the impervious guard for the community. Seeking counseling is often seen as a sign of weakness.

By 2008, rates of completed suicides were still higher among males, while suicide attempts were more common among females. Whites and blacks leveled out in the rate of suicide among males.  I found no CDC or other major health institution reports on suicide more current than 2008. A lack of current literature on the topic may mean that the rates of suicide have leveled off or begun to decrease, as another increase would likely spur more research into the issue. I still consider it highly important, however, to continue to market that mental health counseling is nothing to be ashamed about. The CDC recommends using this website to search for inpatient and outpatient mental health counseling. Growing up is hard enough- if you or someone you know need to, seek help so you can continue to pursue your dreams, and live a happy and healthy life. There's a lot to look forward to, and we'll be looking back on the good ol’ days soon enough.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK

“Ultimately, happiness rests on how you establish a solid sense of self or being. Happiness does not lie in outward appearances nor in vanity. It is a matter of what you feel inside; it is a deep resonance in your life. To be filled each day with a rewarding sense of exhilaration and purpose, a sense of tasks accomplished and deep fulfillment- people who feel this way are happy. Those who have this sense of satisfaction even if they are extremely busy are much happier than those who have time on their hands but feel empty inside.” – Daisku Ikeda