Throughout my time at Mailman, I’ve had many well-meaning friends and relatives ask me, “What is public health? What exactly is it that you’re studying?”. I know I’m not alone in being at a loss to explain such a broad and changing field to those outside of it. But rather than provide a neat definition, there’s a story that encapsulates what I feel public health is about.
In the late 1970s, scientists began to identify a rise in rare diseases accompanied by inexplicable immune deficiencies, often among men who had sex with men, that in combination proved fatal. These symptoms were called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome", and were eventually revised to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS for short. AIDS ravaged the LGBT community for years at an increasing rate and had claimed thousands of lives by the mid-1980s. Despite its recognition by the CDC in 1981, the AIDS epidemic received negligible coverage in the press. The President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, refused to even say the word “AIDS” until 1985 despite the fact that the nation was facing a deadly epidemic for which there was no treatment.
In the face of unspeakable tragedy, policymakers were largely silent, and the ones who did talk about AIDS actively stigmatized people living with it. This was the political and societal landscape until activists forced the hands of policymakers and made them change. People living with AIDS, their friends, and their partners rose up and decried the silent crisis wherever they could be heard, demanding visibility for their cause. Groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis provided telephone hotlines and support groups from their homes here in New York City when patients failed to find the resources they needed through the health care system. Activist groups like ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) adorned their jackets with the motto “Silence=Death” and peacefully disrupted public events as a way to raise awareness for the spreading epidemic. ACT UP stormed the New York Stock Exchange and demanded that new antiretroviral drugs, the only existing AIDS treatments at the time, be priced affordably. They stormed Christmas masses on television and President Bush’s summer vacation home, staging disruptions that forced policymakers to put the AIDS crisis on the national agenda. That was their moment. Activists and the public health practitioners stood together in the face of innumerable deaths, silence from policymakers and an inadequate health system. When no one else would step up, activists placed a silent national health crisis into the public view and forced a systemic response.
That, to me, is public health: seeing the moment when lives are at stake and working to improve the health of all, especially those who are marginalized. When migrant farmers faced untold hazards in the workplace, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta saw their moment and unionized their coworkers to fight for better conditions. Allan Rosenfield, the late dean of this School, and Deborah Maine were unwavering advocates right here at Mailman who brought awareness to the ignored global maternal mortality crisis; they worked tirelessly to bring international attention to maternal and child health. In the wake of systemic violence, protesters in Ferguson and around the nation brought Black Lives Matter into the national consciousness and forced a serious discussion around police brutality. In 2016 at Standing Rock, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe stood in the face of oppression to protect their lands and the greater environment from the oncoming threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened to contaminate a critical water supply and ancient sacred site. These people are champions in history who saw their moment and fought for the health and the well-being of the public. To me, that is why we’re here and what this graduation is about.
Next week, and years from now, people will ask us what the best part of attending Mailman was. I could talk about working with the brightest and most prominent public health faculty who have revolutionized the field. I could talk about being part of an institution on the forefront of health advances and the opportunities to connect with organizations who are doing the most to help others around the globe. But for me, there’s no question that the best part of this experience was being here with all of my classmates. Meeting, working with and learning every day from my brilliant peers who I know will do great things in public health is what made Mailman transformative. And that’s what gives me hope when I look to the future.
We see throughout history that when people work together, great things are accomplished. Our world is facing so many health crises right now. Chronic diseases are on the rise and infectious diseases that we have the power to treat are claiming hundreds of lives every day. Millions in this country lack health insurance and access to primary care. And we don’t need Commencement speaker Al Gore to tell us that we have less than 12 years to address the climate crisis. These are all overwhelming challenges for every public health professional. But it’s not about one person finding the solution. It’s not about you, or me, it’s about all of us. If we work together, I know that we’ll be strong enough to face these crises. And now, as we graduate from students into working professionals, it’s time for that. It’s time for us to work and stand together against the world’s rising health crises. The greatest successes in public health have come when people worked together and rose to their moment in the face of adversity. Now, that’s on all of us. Together. This is our moment.