Jan. 31 2017

Learning from Each Other: The Mailman School Galvanized by Teach-In

In the face of far-reaching federal policy changes, a daylong series of community conversations showcased public health science

In anticipation of rapid-fire policy changes from the new Administration in Washington, D.C., the Mailman School community joined together last Tuesday for “Evidence into Action,” a daylong teach-in to share scientific knowledge and skills to elevate the need for public health going forward.

Mary T. BassettMary Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, gave opening remarks to several hundred students, faculty, and staff. As public health braces for “an assault on all the protections and safety nets that many of us have been advocating for our entire lives,” Bassett said, “it’s important that we come together and confront these challenges.” (Watch a video of Bassett.)

Moving throughout the Columbia University Medical Center campus in 26 different breakout sessions, participants tackled the full spectrum of public health science, interrogating facts and equipping themselves for productive dialogue, with many faculty experts exploring how policy changes might unfold over the coming years.

Chief among the topics scrutinized was the Affordable Care Act. According to Michael Sparer, chair of Health Policy and Management, “Obamacare” is vulnerable, but Republican legislators may be swayed by its popularity with voters—including those it insures—and by the risk of leading insurance markets into complete chaos. To Sparer, more politically feasible is a proposal to transform Medicaid from an entitlement program to one capped through block grants to the states—something Professor Tal Gross said would put low-income people at risk during a sudden economic downturn. (Watch a video of Sparer and Gross.)

Jeffrey ShamanWith news that the administration will pursue fossil fuel projects while crippling the Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Health Sciences Professor Joseph Graziano predicted increases in air pollution and related diseases. Jeffrey Shaman, director of the School’s Climate and Health Program, said efforts were already underway to quash research on climate change.

Speaking to student Betsy Dankenbring during a Facebook Live video, Neil Boothby, director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health, said building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border could lead to a humanitarian crisis in Mexico. At the same time, he expressed concern that immigrants in the U.S. will be subject to increased levels of discrimination and deportation. On Friday, President Trump announced he was banning Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., and putting limits on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

Several sessions centered on the idea that science itself is under attack. “Science is not a liberal conspiracy, but it’s being cast as one,” said Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Columbia Aging Center. “Some people don’t trust our facts,” added Bob Fullilove, professor of Sociomedical Sciences.

President Donald Trump and Senator Tom Price, his nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, have expressed unfounded concerns over the safety of vaccines. Melissa Stockwell, associate professor of Population and Family Health and Pediatrics, said such views could spread misinformation, leading to lower vaccination rates. One of the challenges, according to Ron Bayer, professor of Sociomedical Sciences, is articulating the idea of a common good—that through herd immunity, vaccination protects all children.

A number of sessions explored ways to better organize and articulate public health values. According to Finkelstein, putting your expertise toward policy change can go beyond media interviews and Congressional testimony. “Most advocacy and activist organizations appreciate people who can help them assemble a convincing case,” she said.

Elizabeth Toledo, former vice president of communications at Planned Parenthood, said facts and figures are important, but telling a story is how you connect with people. “Adding a little of yourself often adds a great deal,” she said, guiding students in a session titled “Communicating Through Media” that autobiography can be nicely paired with scientific fact. “Messages have to go from the page to the brain to the heart.”

Bob FulliloveBob Fullilove urged the Mailman community to do more to get to know the local community of Washington Heights, whose residents are particularly vulnerable to policy changes from Medicaid to immigration. To this end, he invited those present to join him in taking a walk around the neighborhood, saying, “Community walks can be a form of resistance.”

In many ways, the day reflected the very best of public health—including a commitment to working together for the collective good.  

In a Facebook Live video, student Seema Keswani called the teach-in “one of the most productive days I’ve had at Mailman” and that she “learned a ton.” Fellow student Eamon Penney added, “Today was unique because it was professors and students figuring it out together.”

“This is our intervention on ourselves to ensure we’re all informed with relevant knowledge and data,” said Linda P. Fried, adding that the teach-in would be a foundation for continued work in the weeks and months ahead. “Today must not and will not be the end of the conversation: it is the beginning.”

Watch videos from the teach-in: