Saturday, September 8, 2012

In the spirit of service

I had an incredible trip to Wellington, New Zealand for the 2012 annual Public Health Association conference. The theme of the conference was 'Equity from the Start - Valuing Our Children'.  I am thankful for the financial support that the Otago/Southland branch gave me so that I could attend the conference; I would not have been there without their help.

We had the privilege of listening to Cindy Blackstock speak about the struggle for equal opportunities for First Nations children.  I listened intently as she described how she advocated for their housing/health/education rights.  Afterall, it is a pretty big deal when a "little guy" takes on a federal government to fight for funding that children need to thrive.

I loved Cindy's enthusiasm, passion, and wit.  Want to work with Government to solve a problem? Give them evidence-based solutions.  Is Government giving you the run around and taking too long? Try mosquito advocacy.  Simple enough.

The last hour or so of the conference was dedicated to taking action.  I was under the impression that each of us would have one goal in mind for reaching those 1 in 4 children unfairly affected by poverty that we heard about: the ones who are sick because their home isn't properly insulated, the ones whose parents waited overnight in fear for the child's ill-health because a clinic wasn't open, or the ones who are behind in school because they didn't have access to early childhood education.  I thought we'd take Cindy's words and put them into action...Unfortunately, when we broke off into small groups I stared blankly at the woman next to me and said, "I don't know what to do."  After two solid days of listening to public health workers and politicians and people in between, I didn't have any ideas for how little ol' me could make a dent in the problem at hand.  She asked me why this was the case and I replied, "I'm just a student."

That statement has been nagging me since the words slipped past my lips.  I'm just a student. When have I ever made an excuse for myself as lame as that? ARG!!!

I wasn't the only person making excuses.  The affect in the room was just plain flat.  I thought we'd all leave ready to change the world for 25% of New Zealand's children.  But no.  I assume that the people already working with children will keep on keeping on and, hopefully, the politicians have become fully aware that something needs to change now; children shouldn't have to wait for adults to do their government-y things that lead to change.

Ah, yes... change.

I said, "I'm just a student," but in reality what I was thinking sounded something like this: "I've only been in this fantastic country for six months and I don't know what goal is feasible for a new student... even if I did have an idea to bring back to Dunedin the bigger problem is that I'm in a research-only program.  If I needed extra sets of hands to accomplish anything the majority of the students in the program would say they don't have time.  In reality, if they'd just cut out 12 minutes/day of procrastinating on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc they would have a full hour each week for doing something productive that gives back." *sigh*

After the conference, I reflected on my experience as a PhD student...  I'm happy doing research. I love doing research.  But, something is missing.  My education has a gap that could be filled with getting out into the community that this university sits in and doing something to make it better.  Public health students should be driven to serve.  We're not just collecting data and analyzing it for kicks.  In my case, I whole-heartedly believe there are unsolved mysteries to women's eating behavior that contribute to obesity yet to be discovered.  Once I synthesize something from my research I can distribute that new knowledge for others to use as they wish - hopefully, to tackle the problem of obesity.  In the mean time, students at the University of Otago could volunteer and improve lives of those who live in and around Dunedin, but it's not the culture here.  *sad face*  Doesn't it seem odd that the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine doesn't have a group of students doing stuff to, you know, prevent things?  Why wait three years to turn in a pile of paper just to say Ta da! Here's my contribution! Shouldn't we gain experience serving the public now?

I have to report my conference experience to the PHA Otago/Southland branch in the near future.  Maybe they'll have ideas for action that students at the University of Otago can take to help level the playing field for disadvantaged New Zealand children/families.

Maybe I'll carve out 12 minutes/day to dedicate to doing something about the things I've just vented about.

We'll see!

Now that I got all that off my chest, I'll be able to post something more upbeat next time - with pictures!

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