Youth Activism and Civic Engagement in Public Health

Youth Activism and Civic Engagement in Public Health

The need for youth activism and civic engagement in public health has never been greater. A mentor once said, “When public health is doing its thing, you will never hear a word about it.” But today, the profession doesn’t have that luxury. We must act if we want public health to remain a strong and vibrant force in American life.

Public health faces concerted attacks and obstacles

Anti-public health and anti-expert rhetoric is rampant. Concerted efforts by some local, state, and federal legislators to weaken public health authority have increased since the pandemic. For example, at least 10 states have enacted policies to ease child labor laws, even amid revelations of violations. When compared internationally, the U.S. has lax child labor laws regardless of the known health consequences. And despite the well-understood mitigating effects of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts on health inequities, some states have begun moving towards restricting “anything” DEI. This is already impacting universities and public health professional schools across the nation.

Thankfully, in my state, common sense prevailed on a few fronts in Kansas’ legislative session due to the work of public health advocates. The governor vetoed a legislative effort to remove the state health department’s authority to test, isolate and quarantine. And just in time, as a local public school system experienced the county’s first active TB outbreak since 2015. The state also raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21. And finally Kansas decriminalized fentanyl testing strips and other harm reduction mechanisms to combat the opioid crisis.

Students and young professionals are ready to be active and engaged

Anti-public health trends must meet stark resistance from public health students and professionals. We have little choice but to face the anti-health opposition head-on and push back. Across the nation, students and young professionals want to be active and involved to affect systemic and comprehensive change.

Despite where we are in our careers, we can act to change the systems of power. But this can only happen through collective work and developing our skillsets. We must get engaged civically, from the ground floor, and without reservation. Policy is the means by which public health can address upstream issues. The health of the nation depends on our ability to push back against policy the undermines public health.

It’s not about where you start, its about where you are going

In late winter 2022, I started as an observational learner at University of Kansas Medical Center, intending to gain exposure to research for professional school applications. This quickly morphed into: “I have no idea what I am doing or where to go from here.” But my growing passions for health policy, advocacy, activism, and civic responsibility inspired me to write a call to action. I spent the last 1.5 years gaining insights on advocacy from professional organizations, coursework, and by engaging my local elected officials.

Following this path, as a student in public health and (soon-to-be) medicine, I was fortunate to be connected with acclaimed Flint Water activist, Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., MPH. Dr. Hanna-Attisha encouraged me to, “Keep pushing the envelope – keep asking why – keep getting at those root causes.” This inspiration precipitated the inaugural Kansas Public Health Association (KPHA) Legislative Toolkit funded by a Midwest Public Health Training Center field placement.

This toolkit resulted in my presenting at the KPHA annual conference, where this year’s theme focused on transforming the public health workforce through advocacy. The toolkit also led to an award, correspondence with national public health leaders, and spotlighting via the American Public Health Association and Public Health Communications Collaborative.

The aim of the toolkit was to arm public health professionals with necessary:

  • Literature
  • Framing tools (via FrameWorks Institute and BMSG)
  • Resources (via links to numerous national and local entities), and
  • Step-by-step mechanisms to get engaged civically

During my presentation, a respected member of the state’s public health workforce stood and presented a detailed account of present day public health, concluding:

“How can we expect, with calls to advocacy, to make a difference when it is treated as an afterthought – where funding is not fully in place, and the infrastructure relies on, in our [KPHA policy team’s] case, one person to combat the doings of awful policy and organized anti-public health groups in Kansas?”

There is, perhaps, no good answer other than to make our voices heard.

Youth activism and civic engagement in public health is about collective power

Despite this, we cannot sit idly by while anti-public health forces grow. We must acknowledge the collective power that we hold. There are even formal ways to reflect on this power, including through the practice of self-examen, values-based spirituality, and group accountability. We must recognize that we are at a point where our public health work is being stymied by powerful systems. [Dr. Josh Freeman writes about these frequently in his blog posts.]

The stakes are too high for us to be complacent. We must galvanize one another to push back against emerging and reemerging diseases, the stripping of basic public health oversight and funding, and the shuttering of critical access health centers. Our collective action is even more urgent given continuing attacks on reproductive rights and overwhelming amounts of public health disinformation, among other issues.

Channeling the words of civil rights icon and Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, that inspired me:

“We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand, waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly, and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

Students and young professionals want to be engaged. It is the duty of everyone in public health to exemplify advocacy and activism to inspire the youth of the nation. We must engage our policymakers and actively oppose ideologically driven efforts that are harmful to the health of our communities. We can strengthen public health by having difficult conversations, engaging in grassroots education about public health (beginning in our own households), and voting against policies and elected officials that weaken public health.

Devin Quinn

Devin Quinn is a 2017 graduate of Kansas State University’s B.Sc in Kinesiology. He has spent the last five years working and volunteering in a variety of roles in the intellectual/developmental disability community (I/DD), acute inpatient rehab (PT/OT/SLP), COVID screening, Medical ICU, and urban health clinics as a medical assistant and harm reduction associate.

He is in his first semester as a Master’s in Public Health Practice student, and current co-president of the MPH Student Organization. His passion is towards compassionate and preventative patient care with an aim towards public health education and interventions. He is also applying for a position in a MD program starting Fall 2023.

Devin Quinn
Devin Quinn

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