Social, economic, and political inequity generates, exacerbates, and perpetuates vast health inequities. In the United States, one’s ability to live a healthy life is directly correlated with income, place, and race. In the Bay Area, life expectancy between people residing in poor versus affluent neighborhoods differs by roughly 10 years. To sustain a healthy society, social and economic inequities must be addressed.As the Occupy movement decried the widening wealth gap, we witnessed excessive police force used on non-violent protesters. On campus and elsewhere, hundreds of people were exposed to beatings with batons, harmful chemical agents, high-velocity projectiles, and other forms of violence. Though officials generally cited “public health” as a reason for curtailing Occupy efforts, such actions were often harmful to public health. Additionally, free speech and nonviolent protests are critical to addressing the very inequities that plague our communities.
While many at the School are already active in social justice causes, Occupy resonated deeply within our community. We mobilized to protect free speech and highlight how the issues appearing on protest signs—education cuts, corporate greed and corruption, the foreclosure crisis, anti immigration laws, public transportation cuts— are all public health issues. We reached out to students, faculty, staff, and alumni to discuss our role in supporting these issues. Seventy-five public health students, faculty, staff and alumni sent a statement to the Chancellor and participated in actions across the Bay Area.
This dialogue and action has revealed shared opportunities for the movement and our School of Public Health mission. We’ve realized the importance of practical cross-sector training and frameworks that break down the silos within and between the campus and communities. Many students—more than 20 of whom committed themselves to various Occupy Public Health working groups–commented that their participation in the workgroups provided the first opportunity to work across concentrations, roles, and programs within the school. Participating in Occupy has also challenged us to ask ourselves difficult questions about our own willingness to address power dynamics in our own public health work.
Poverty, racism, and extreme social stratification, and subsequently substandard education, housing, and neighborhoods deeply affect the health of our nation. The Occupy movement provides an opportunity for public health to build and strengthen partnerships with leaders in education, housing, transportation, city planning, social work, economics, policy, law, and the many other communities that can reduce and ultimately eliminate the vast inequities so harmful to our collective well-being.
Social movements are dynamic processes full of differing perspectives on tactics, goals, and vision. Addressing structural racism, gender discrimination, heterosexism, and class discrimination within and external to the movement are enormous challenges. However, for many of us, this is the most significant social movement in our lifetimes. Regardless of our role as students, alumni, faculty, or staff, we must start by evaluating the authenticity of our own engagement, considering how much power are we willing to share, and asking what our role is in eliminating health inequities. Together, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make health equity a reality.