Clipboard in hand, Abhinaya Narayanan BA ’13 spent a summer riding the bus lines that are lifelines for Oakland’s poorest and most marginalized residents.
She learned the 18-line’s twists and turns heading into downtown Oakland and became a regular on the route that rumbles past the kaleidoscope of auto repair shops, corner markets, and food trucks on bustling International Boulevard. But most importantly, Narayanan got to know the people who rely on those buses for their daily—and very basic—needs.
“No one asks riders about their experiences,” says Narayanan, who devoted last year’s summer months to doing just that.
The 21-year-old Narayanan, who earned her bachelor’s degree in public health and integrative biology in August, spoke with low-income grandmothers, stroller-pushing moms, high school students, and others. Their stories helped produce a first-of-its-kind health impact assessment published this past spring by the Alameda County Public Health Department. The 58-page report, Getting on Board for Health, spells out the consequences of recent service cuts and fare hikes by local bus operator AC Transit based on a survey of 417 transit-dependent passengers.
It reveals a heavy toll. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed reported struggling to get to work, school, and other important destinations, resulting in heightened stress, missed medical appointments, and greater social solation. More than two-thirds of the passengers were low-income and rode the bus daily. Many expressed fear that longer wait times left them vulnerable to crime at bus stops.
“When bus service is cut, an individual’s access to their job, to a grocery store to buy healthy food, or even to a hospital to get medical services is directly impacted,” says Narayanan, who helped design and test the survey. She joined the project while doing community organizing for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), one of the local nonprofits that collaborated on the study.
The Getting on Board report was submitted to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in hopes of persuading regional planners to boost funding for local bus services. In July 2013, planning officials adopted a long-range blueprint for transportation and housing in the Bay Area that failed to increase that funding but committed to identifying more funding for local transit service in coming years, says Zoë Levitt, a county health impact assessment coordinator who helped author the report.
In Narayanan’s bus travels, the public health undergraduate came to see how access to convenient, affordable transportation is both a health and social justice concern. “Public transit, especially for a community like Oakland, is critically important,” says Narayanan, who grew up in an affluent Los Angeles suburb that didn’t have public bus lines.
The daughter of physicians, Narayanan has always been interested in medicine, but credits her Berkeley education with awakening her passion for public health and community organizing.
“It really opened my eyes to seeing that I was a product of the community and resources I was born into,” she says.
Narayanan, who had started as a molecular and cell biology major, then decided to turn to the wider lens of public health.
“I didn’t expect to find something I’d have this much passion about,” she admits. She later added a minor in global poverty and practice and a second major in integrative biology.
For Narayanan, the link between academics and real-world experience was transformative. Classes in community health, epidemiology, and other public health topics gave her the scientific grounding to understand and interpret the observations she was making in the field. “Without the major, I wouldn’t have seen the connection between community-level issues and health,” she says.
At Berkeley, Narayanan also plunged into volunteerism.
Along with her involvement with ACCE, she served as the student director of Oakland Community Builders, a servicelearning group on campus that links Berkeley students to community internships that foster social justice. She also taught low-income Oakland high school students about the risks of STDs and HIV and trained fellow Berkeley students to become health educators through the Peer Health Exchange program. On the international front, Narayanan raised funds with another nonprofit organization, Asha, to support educational programs for underserved children in India.
“Schools, transit, housing, violence—they’re all public health issues. Every sort of issue around social justice revolves around health”
All those contributions didn’t go unnoticed. This past spring, UC Berkeley recognized Narayanan with the Mather Good Citizen Award, presented annually to a graduating senior for outstanding service to the campus and community.
“Building a more just society, that is her vocation,” says Sean Burns, director of student programs at the campus’s Blum Center for Developing Economies and Narayanan’s nominator for the award. At the Blum Center, Narayanan also joined with lecturer Khalid Kadir and fellow students to design a course focused on critically examining institutions that manage and direct international development and poverty alleviation efforts. “When Abhinaya speaks, she speaks from the heart,” says Kadir.
Not surprisingly, Narayanan has big ambitions for her future. Since graduating, she became the manager of workforce development at the California Academy of Family Physicians, where she will focus on health policy for funding graduate medical education in primary care. Eventually, she hopes to return to school for an MD and an MPH. With her feet planted in the medical and public health worlds, she wants to help communities organize and shape policy that improves the health of individuals and entire populations.
“Schools, transit, housing, violence—they’re all public health issues,” she says. “Every sort of issue around social justice revolves around health.”
For Narayanan, the bus project was a defining opportunity. “It was really exciting for me as an undergraduate to work with people in the community and to translate their experience into public health practice,” she says.
Among the stories that Narayanan heard on board the buses was one from a grandmother who described how her daughter was in danger of losing her job. Late buses, the grandmother explained, were making her daughter chronically tardy for work. Mothers with small children relayed how drivers, apparently anxious to keep to their schedules or concluding their buses were already full, sometimes passed them by when they were waiting at a bus stop with a stroller.
Working with ACCE, Narayanan helped organize a stroller march last summer responding to fears that AC Transit was considering a ban on baby buggies aboard its buses. The bus operator denied such plans but the protest led to discussions to clarify an existing stroller policy.
Speaking to riders—and getting them to open up—was a learning process for Narayanan. As a college student from a privileged background, “I was an outsider,” she says. “I had never done anything like this before.”
As Narayanan became a regular on the buses, “I got more in touch with the experience of being a rider myself. That’s when the words started flowing.”
That’s also when Narayanan realized that the issue of bus service intersected with much that was taking place in riders’ lives. The service cuts, she maintains, reflect a wider disinvestment by society in low-income communities.
“To make real change you have to be willing to be political, to step on some toes and fight the status quo,” she says. “But, one common point many can agree on is a person’s right to be healthy. I think health can be a rallying point for disparate groups to come together to make change.”