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What does it mean to celebrate July 4th?
Photo by Jingda Chen on Unsplash.

Across America, thousands of communities will celebrate today in big and small ways, with local and larger events, holiday fare, parades, music and readings of the Declaration of Independence. Some people may not get past the hot dogs and watermelon, but I hope that many will think, even for a couple minutes, about what it means to live in a country built on principles of democracy, where the voice of the people matters. “We the people” were, for many years, defined as white men, but that has changed over time, as laws have codified standards to make our society fairer and more just. That doesn’t make us perfect. In fact, the founding (yes) fathers aimed to create not a perfect union, but a more perfect union. It was the dream of that more perfect union that inspired leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for rights to be extended to all Americans, beyond those whom our founding fathers narrowly included. We’ve progressed in increments, not in leaps.

Our more perfect – but far from perfect – union is being tested every day. We look around, and many ask (I ask.) if our very democracy is at risk. We see children and families at our southern border treated in cruel, brutal and inhumane ways. We see inequities increasing across society, and leaders without compassion. We see a leader more comfortable with despots than democrats. We see regulations capriciously enforced to restrict our collaborations with Chinese colleagues and threats silencing our speech.

A holiday that traditionally has celebrated unity in our country will be a show of military force this year. A colleague emailed me yesterday saying: “It was unbelievable to drive into the city today and see the tanks and to not have access to the federal park land this weekend (as I’m not a Republican donor, I didn’t get a ticket to the event.). As a taxpayer in DC, I am appalled at the waste of money…when we have major issues of concern (detention centers, flooding).”

I’ve been multiple times to the massive Washington, D.C., celebration of all that is America, and felt that we were in the melting pot of the country as the evening ended with a magnificent display of fireworks. I never left the U.S. Capitol grounds without looking up and remembering that my grandparents were immigrants who came with almost nothing and spoke no English. I always left feeling just a little better about being an American. I will not be there this year.

We can rekindle the principles of democracy.

I’ve been reading Become America by Eric Liu, who writes about civic democracy, civic religion and the responsibilities of citizenship. He defines American civic religion as the creed of ideals stated at the nation’s founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed. He says we should rekindle our faith in the fragile experiment of democracy and in one another. It is on each of us to stand up for the vision of democracy expressed in our founding documents and updated through our nation’s history to be inclusive. Adam Gopnik, in A Thousand Small Sanities, another book written after the 2016 presidential election, described the practice of liberal democracy as, “that magical marriage of free individuals and fair laws – of the pursuit of happiness, each to her own joy, with the practice of disinterested justice, everyone treated the same.” I believe in that vision.

Freedom and fairness are central to American democracy and to public health. Access to safe environments, affordable health care and quality public education are at the heart of public health and should be central tenets of our democracy today. Not long ago, they were. We may be guaranteed the right to bear arms, but we also should be guaranteed the right to arrive home safely and to not be struck down in drive-by shootings or treated differentially by the judicial system because of race.

We have so much capacity as a country to love, treat one another fairly, embrace strangers and those in need, prevent disease and illness and not turn away the sick, protect the environment and invest in our children. “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s famous poem about the Statue of Liberty, written in 1883, contains the lines, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We were a country that for many years, not perfectly, welcomed strangers to our shores.

In April 1968, Robert Kennedy announced the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and closed with these words: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within the country whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Today, more than ever, we need love, wisdom and compassion. We also need programs that redress wrongs perpetrated on many fellow Americans and those who seek to join us. To rededicate ourselves to the goal of achieving a more perfect union is as good a reason as I can imagine to celebrate the 4th of July. I believe in the American dream. It is the American reality that I want to change.

Happy Independence Day!
Barbara

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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Targeting cancer researchers is wrong

For a while, we’ve been hearing stories about government inquiries into the actions of some scientists, especially Chinese and Chinese American researchers, amidst concerns that they are threats to United States science and society. Bloomberg Businessweek published an in-depth story on the issues, focused on a scientist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Peter Waldman reports:

The dossier on cancer researcher Xifeng Wu was thick with intrigue, if hardly the stuff of a spy thriller. It contained findings that she’d improperly shared confidential information and accepted a half-dozen advisory roles at medical institutions in China. She might have weathered those allegations, but for a larger aspersion that was far more problematic: She was branded an oncological double agent.

In recent decades, cancer research has become increasingly globalized, with scientists around the world pooling data and ideas to jointly study a disease that kills almost 10 million people a year. International collaborations are an intrinsic part of the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Moonshot program, the government’s $1 billion blitz to double the pace of treatment discoveries by 2022. One of the program’s tag lines: “Cancer knows no borders.”

Except, it turns out, the borders around China. In January, Wu, an award-winning epidemiologist and naturalized American citizen, quietly stepped down as director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center after a three-month investigation into her professional ties in China. Her resignation, and the departures in recent months of three other top Chinese American scientists from Houston-based MD Anderson, stem from a Trump administration drive to counter Chinese influence at U.S. research institutions. The aim is to stanch China’s well-documented and costly theft of U.S. innovation and know-how. The collateral effect, however, is to stymie basic science, the foundational research that underlies new medical treatments. Everything is commodified in the economic cold war with China, including the struggle to find a cure for cancer.

Dr. Wu, who stepped down after 27 years with MD Anderson, now is dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University. Photo from Twitter.

Waldman explains that the National Institutes of Health and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are collaborating on probes that sometimes involve reading the private emails of Chinese American scientists, visiting their homes to ask about their loyalty and stopping them at airports. The article describes an over-zealous FBI doing everything possible to stop the theft of American intellectual property by the Chinese government. If Waldman is correct, there have been more arrests than prosecutions, and our government has been aggressively targeting ethnic Chinese scientists, the majority of whom are American citizens.

I grew up in the post-World War II era. Some of my and my sisters’ friends grew up in Japanese internment camps in the U.S. They saw relatives get sick and die in those camps. We saw photos of the camps and heard family stories (similar to what we are seeing and hearing today with the border crisis). The experience left an indelible mark of pain, humiliation and suffering on those who were targeted. Yes, it was wartime, but our government was wrong to round up innocent people and treat them like traitors — people who were living here legally, most as American citizens.

Back to Dr. Wu, then chair of Anderson’s Epidemiology department. She was accused of sharing intellectual property, because she asked members of her staff to download and print copies of grants she was reviewing. There were other allegations, but none would be considered heinous. According to the article, they might have been indiscretions but were not criminal activity. Wu also may have failed to disclose some honors she received from Chinese institutions, for which she said she received no compensation. These are complicated issues. What to disclose is not always as clear as it should be.

“If you searched through MD Anderson or any large research institution, you’d find people with these kinds of compliance issues everywhere,” says Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken School of Public Health at George Washington University, as quoted in the Businessweek article.

Waldman writes:

To friends and many colleagues, Wu’s case represents overkill. There was no evidence, and no accusation, that she’d given China any proprietary information, whatever that term might mean in cancer epidemiology. She should have been given the chance to correct her disclosures without punishment, her supporters say. “Innocent yet meaningful scientific collaborations have been portrayed as somehow corrupt and detrimental to American interests,” says Randy Legerski, a retired vice chair of MD Anderson’s genetics department and former chair of its faculty senate.

I interacted with Dr. Wu several times when I was still an active cancer researcher and then when leading the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). She is a remarkable cancer epidemiologist who created some of the best characterized cohorts of Asians for the study of cancer predisposition. Her lab was particularly expert in conducting certain kinds of assays, including urinary cotinine. I’m not justifying any of Dr. Wu’s actions, because we don’t have facts, merely accusations. There are rules, and all of us must follow them, but FBI investigations should be reserved for real threats. Oncologic espionage may conjure James Bond-esque intrigue, but schools of public health, medicine, and other scientific and technical fields have many ethnic Chinese faculty members and students. We need them. What worries me is that our government would target scientists based on their country of birth, ethnicity, ancestry, race or other factors, with little hard information.

Waldman reports:

Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley, among other institutions, have published letters of support for Chinese faculty members and research collaborations. “An automatic suspicion of people based on their national origin can lead to terrible consequences,” wrote Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ in February.

Government officials acting on behalf of the country I love should know this and act accordingly.

As someone who devoted much of my career to cancer research and, most recently, chaired the President’s Cancer Panel from 2011-2019, I am particularly concerned about the potential impact of this misguided campaign on the future of cancer research, including population research, where we are so dependent on large cohorts and trials. China is a logical place to do some of that work, because of its rapid transition from a traditional culture to one that creates higher risks for cancer and other diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease. When I was at the NCI (1997-2002), there was a great deal of pride in the role we played in science diplomacy — the idea that scientific collaboration should know no borders and could pave the way for other kinds of collaboration. I still believe that. Apparently, the current administration does not share that viewpoint, and America will be the loser.
Barbara

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A remarkable man who made the world a better place
Dr. van der Horst with then-Senator Barack Obama in April 2008. From a Facebook post on March 21, 2019.

Charlie van der Horst, MD, died Friday, June 14, during an ambitious, multi-day swim marathon on the Hudson River in New York. I’ve done one land marathon, but I cannot even imagine swimming 19 miles a day in open water – at age 67. According to news reports, Charles was completing the next-to-last stage when he went under. The search for his body continued Sunday. Event organizer New York Open Water and Charlie’s family released statements over the weekend. Thinking of John Donne’s famous words, I feel diminished by his loss.

As far as I could tell, Charles did nothing in small measure! Besides being a competitive, driven, accomplished athlete, he was a groundbreaking, compassionate AIDS researcher and physician, part of the brilliant infectious disease team at UNC’s School of Medicine that did much of their work in Malawi, leading an AIDS treatment trial that changed the face of AIDS prevention. Charles cared deeply and felt intensely about issues of race, equity and fairness. He was one of the people who stood at Moral Mondays in partnership with the Rev. William J. Barber II. Charles, his wife, Laura Svetkey, MD, two daughters and their many friends embody values we need so badly today – such as justice, health care for all, organizations that do the right things and environmental justice. From that perspective, his loss feels particularly infinite. His sister, Jackie Sargent, MPH, is mayor of Oxford, N.C., a graduate of our school, and until May, was on our Public Health Foundation Board. Daughter Sarah is married to one of our alumni. Dr. van der Horst’s mother, Sonja, was apparently a woman of remarkable grit and courage who, as a teenager during World War II, escaped death but lost her parents and sister to the Nazis.

Photo courtesy of Karen Glanz, from Facebook.

Charles’ network was vast. Friend, colleague and University of Pennsylvania professor Karen Glanz wrote yesterday,

I first became acquainted with Charles from a Facebook group – ‘Did you swim today?’ – that my Hawaii open-water swimming friends got me involved in. He was a frequent poster, an impressive athlete, and seemed like a real happy and social mensch. I never met him in person, but figured that UNC friends probably knew him as well. When he went missing in the Hudson River, I followed anxiously, and then sadly, as it was clear he wouldn’t survive. Like a lot of swimmers in the ‘network,’ I swam in his memory with his initials on my breathing side arm (see pic). Since then, of course, I’ve learned a lot more about him – all of it remarkable and making his death all the more tragic.

I was awed by Charlie, admired him and appreciated his candor in talking about his own struggles in life. While he did so many things that were big and important, what I remember especially, with deep gratitude, is how caring and kind he was to my parents, now both deceased, whom he came to know socially after they moved to Chapel Hill in the early 1990s.

The world lost a hero last Friday.
Barbara

Dr. van der Horst (center, holding “improved medicare for all” sign), in February 2017, marched with more than 200 health professionals and students in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, in support of a broad range of issues from health care, Black Lives Matter, immigration, labor laws and minimum wages, environmental justice, LGBTQ rights and voting rights. On his Facebook page, where he posted this photo, Charlie wrote “Particularly proud of the students from Duke, UNC and elsewhere – they are the next generation with a fire in their bellies who will take the struggle onwards. They stand on the shoulders of students who came before them. Photo by the inestimable Jenny Warburg.”
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50 years ago this month

Stonewall Inn, 1969, by Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library [creativecommons.org] The message in the window reads: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.—Mattachine.”
Fifty years may seem like an eternity to many readers whose parents hadn’t even been born then. It was a time when homosexuality was illegal, and discrimination was an inherent part of social structures. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people were subjected to slurs, intimidation and violence. It makes me sick just to think about it.

On June 28, 1969, police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, assaulting patrons and arresting 13 people in the process. It was not the first such incident, but this time, patrons and area residents were no longer willing to tolerate the abuse and reacted by rioting. Demonstrations ensued for days, sometimes with thousands participating. Those events changed the way many people in LGBTQIA+ thought about themselves, paving the way for progress. It was the beginning of a movement.

At the time, I knew about Stonewall vaguely but was too caught up in my schoolwork and protesting the Vietnam War to really understand what was happening. That was a time when, even at places like the University of Michigan, our struggles were more about Vietnam and racial equity than about equity for all. The next year, we struck for the Black Action Movement on campus.

A year after the Stonewall uprising, as college campuses continued to erupt with anti-war protests, the first Gay Pride march was held in NYC, with about 500 people participating, according to estimates. As various historians and observers recount, the initial focus of what would become an annual Gay Pride event was homosexual rights, but later it became about equity for all. AIDS made a large, tragic impact, because it brought sexual preferences out of the darkness. All over the country and around the world, people began to listen and learn.

Close-up photo of rainbow flag, by Sharon McCutcheon on unsplash.com.

Our School’s diversity statement and our University’s notice of non-discrimination explicitly refer to sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, among other protected characteristics. We aim to be welcoming for all. We talk openly, as we should, about intersectionality.

We talk about non-binary identities in a way many of us might not even have considered just a few years ago. Many of our students use this language as a matter of course and without judgment.

On Sunday, the New Yorker Radio Hour on NPR featured a compelling look back at Stonewall and how it influenced where we are today with LGBTQIA+ rights, how far we’ve come, how far we still must go, and how much is at risk with the current administration and polarized environment of the country.

In a remarkable example of progress and how attitudes still are shifting, during a June 6 event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the riots, N.Y.P.D. Commissioner James P. O’Neill issued a public apology on behalf of the New York Police Department. “The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong, plain and simple,” O’Neill said. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive,” he added, “and for that, I apologize.”

To safeguard the present, we must learn from the past. There are many good resources to learn more about Stonewall and the issues surrounding it and following in its wake. Here are just a couple:

With the LGBT Community Center of New York City (The Center), Google created Stonewall Forever, an interactive “living monument,” including a gripping, 2-minute historical documentary video that some may find quite raw.

History.com and Wikipedia articles cover what happened at Stonewall Inn and the environment in the U.S. surrounding homosexuality. For example, in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association added homosexuality to their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), calling it a mental disorder. It was cause for someone to lose their job, housing and reputation, and be arrested and incarcerated.

History is a good teacher. It’s time to remind ourselves in public health that we stand for equity for all, and that our work is part of a larger effort and campaign for human rights. We’re all in it together.

To that end, many Gillings School faculty members and students study and intervene on critical issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation, related health behaviors and health outcomes, HIV/AIDS and other concerns for LGBTQIA+ populations:

  • Carolyn Halpern, PhD, professor and chair of maternal and child health, uses large-scale, longitudinal data to understand patterns of adolescent sexual initiation, preferences and health outcomes.
  • Derrick Matthews, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior, studies the numerous health inequities experienced by LGBTQ populations.
  • Benjamin Meier, JD, LLM, PhD, associate professor of global health policy and adjunct associate professor of health policy and management, has written thoughtful, incisive reviews on human rights and HIV/AIDS
  • Brian Pence, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology, focuses on the links between mental health and HIV-related behaviors and health outcomes in the Southeastern U.S. and in Africa.
  • Audrey Pettifor, PhD, professor of epidemiology, examines sexual behavior and determinants of HIV/STI infection in sub-Saharan Africa. Her goal is to identify modifiable risk factors and develop novel interventions to prevent new HIV infections, particularly among adolescents and young women.

These are just a few examples of the excellent work UNC Gillings faculty members are doing to understand gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual behaviors and health outcomes; prevent AIDS; and address the links between HIV-related behaviors and mental health.

Being part of something larger than ourselves… Celebrating and supporting people for exactly who they are… Understanding how sexual behaviors and gender identity affect health outcomes so we can reduce inequities and improve health and well-being for all… We’re on it!
Barbara

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Bill Moyers argues the similarities
Demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Capitol, in Washington, DC.
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash.

In a compelling, cautionary address, reported last week in The Guardian, the distinguished writer and commentator, Bill Moyers, 84, drew a parallel between journalists’ roles in covering the approach of World War II and climate change today. To a gathering of journalists, Moyers said: “In the war, the purpose of journalism was to awaken the world to the catastrophe looming ahead of it. We must approach our climate crisis the same way.” He went on to say:

But events educate, experience instructs, and so much destructive behavior has been caused by climate disruption that more Americans today than ever seem hungry to know what’s causing it, what’s coming and what can be done about it. We journalists have perhaps our last chance to help people grasp the magnitude of the threat.

If that is true for journalists, it is just as true for those in public health. Climate and public health are deeply convergent. Health inequities, disruption of ecosystems, food insecurity, catastrophic storms – all are related to both climate and health outcomes. Many of us, and I include myself, have not done enough to spread the word about the crisis of climate.

Moyers described reporters positioned across Europe who tried in vain to get the media to pay attention to the story of impending war. Time and time again, they were put off, given short shrift, told it wasn’t happening and asked to replace their stories with feel-good Hollywood antics. Combining information from several sources, Moyers said,

…and still the powers in New York resisted. Through the rest of 1939 and into the spring of 1940, Hitler hunched on the borders of France and the Low Countries, his Panzers idling, poised to strike. Shirer fumed, ‘My God! Here was the old continent on the brink of war…and the network was most reluctant to provide five minutes a day from here to report it.’ Just as the networks and cable channels provide practically no coverage today of global warming.

Today is Memorial Day. There are lessons from the war and the brave men (my father included) and women who fought a despot who beguiled the public with stories that only the desperate could – and did – believe. There also are lessons that can be applied today about standing by while the world is in flames or may soon be. Moyers said:

My colleague and co-writer, Glenn Scherer, compares global disruption to a repeat hit-and-run driver: anonymous, deadly, and requiring tireless investigation to identify the perpetrator. There are long stretches of nothing, then suddenly Houston is inundated and Paradise burns. San Juan blows away and saltwater creeps into the subways of New York. The networks put their reporters out in raincoats or standing behind police barriers as flames consume far hills. Yet we rarely hear the words ‘global warming’ or ‘climate disruption’ in their reports. The big backstory of rising CO2 levels, escalating drought, collateral damage, cause and effect, and politicians on the take from fossil-fuel companies? Forget all that. Not good for ratings, say network executives.

All is not yet lost

Moyers ended by providing hope and a call to action.

Can we get this story right? Can we tell it whole? Can we connect the dots and inspire people with the possibility of change?

Here’s the good news: While describing David Wallace-Wells’s stunning new book The Uninhabitable Earth as a remorseless, near-unbearable account of what we are doing to our planet, The New York Times reports it also offers hope. Wallace-Wells says that ‘We have all the tools we need…to aggressively phase out dirty energy…; [cut] global emissions…[and] scrub carbon from the atmosphere…. [There are] obvious and available, [if costly,] solutions.’

What we need, he adds, is the ‘acceptance of responsibility.’

Our responsibility as journalists is to tell the story so people get it.

Our roles as public health professionals, advocates and citizens

If the responsibility of journalists is to tell the story so people get it, we have the responsibility as public health professionals, health professionals, and others to use our collective voice. That voice can be powerful and amplified thousands and millions fold if we use it well. We can use our skills and expertise as policy makers, engineers, biostatisticians and epidemiologists, communicators and behavioral experts and more to make a difference and encourage the right actions at every level. We cannot simply sit on the sidelines of history and watch the degradation of the planet and everything on it. It is not enough to frighten people, especially when many perceive the risks as far off and not affected by their individual behaviors. It is not enough to simply provide facts, as we know from behavioral theories. We must also give them clear, actionable messages about what they can do to make a difference.

I will be asking a lot of questions in our School to assess what we can do to ensure that our students are learning what they need to know about climate, and that we are doing what we can and should, to avoid a cataclysm as horrific as the worst war we can imagine. I know some will say that there are more important topics students should learn now, but what could be more important than the future of the earth? Yes, this post is apocalyptic in tone, but that’s what we face when governments refuse to believe in or act on evidence. The clock is ticking.

I am spending some time this holiday weekend reading The Uninhabitable Earth to get ideas for action. I also am thinking with love about my late father who ran across battlefields as a medic to save lives in World War II, and once shamed a cowardly cleric for leaving injured soldiers alone and dying. He never told us those stories until the closing years of his life.

With thanks to those who protect our country and the planet.
Barbara

Doing the important work to address climate
Photo courtesy of UNC.

Innovative, solution-oriented work, like that of student startup Phyta, Inc., gives reason for hope. Eliza Harrison, who just completed a BSPH in environmental health science from the Gillings School this month, co-founded Phyta in 2016 based on the belief that cultivating seaweed would benefit the planet in multiple ways. Gillings School executive entrepreneur-in-residence Don Holzworth and health behavior professor and chair Kurt Ribisl have mentored the Phyta team along their amazing journey. Local television station WRAL aired a story in April.

Postscript: Each of us has our own way of responding to the climate crisis. Steve Regan, assistant dean for human resources at the Gillings School, shared with me that he wrote a poem and then turned it into a song about the urgent need to act on climate. “This is a sad song, but I think it makes the point about a very scary and sad situation,” Steve said. “I think of my grandchildren when I sing this song.” A recording of Steve singing Wild Horses Don’t Run is embedded here. “We must keep trying to get the message across,” he explained. I couldn’t agree more.

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Monday Morning by Barbara Rimer - 2M ago
UNC commencement speaker Jonathan Reckford addressed our deepest selves
Jonathan Reckford addressed the class of 2019. Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.

Jonathan Reckford, MBA, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, was UNC-Chapel Hill’s commencement speaker Sunday, May 12. A 1984 UNC alumnus, he shared his personal journey to where he is today.

Like so many other accomplished people, he has had his share of failures, but he found his calling — his true purpose in life — in service. Reckford asked graduates to decide whose voices will influence them: Whose voices will they hear? He urged them to define for themselves what rich means, and he said that, for him, it is not about what you have but who you are as a person.

That’s a lesson I’ve shared with our students, one which often is driven home in eulogies. At funerals, speakers rarely mention what a person owned, but, rather, what kind of person they were. At the incredibly moving memorial service for Paul Godley, MD, PhD, who died March 31, speakers focused on the kind of man he was: there for his family; an advocate for younger faculty, especially those of color, and for his patients; a person who listened and was driven to reduce health inequities.

Reckford urged graduates to learn as much as they can about the world so they can make decisions about what kind of people they will be. The story Reckford told about how he came to believe that his mission was to end poverty could have been a parable about public health. We cannot separate health from having a roof over one’s head, nutritious food, health care, education and a safe environment in which to live. They’re all connected. That’s why public health is so central to what matters most in the world.

Congratulations to our UNC-Chapel Hill graduates!
Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.

I grew up thinking about service as a way I could find my purpose in life. There are many ways to serve and many ways to embody the kind of service Reckford represents. It’s not easy to find one’s true calling: As Reckford described, it may be more of a process than a single blast of enlightenment. Still, it’s worth taking the time to reflect and figure it out, and doing so should be part of our graduates’  journey as they walk the paths that lead from Carolina to the rest of their lives.

Reckford left the audience with a Franciscan benediction. Whether or not one is religious, it should have meaning. For those of us in public health, it could just as easily be a Benediction for the Public’s Health:

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

The closing is a reminder of what our Gillings School commencement speaker, Richard Besser, MD, urged our graduates — not to let anyone tell them they cannot change the world. Making a difference in the world… That’s public health!
Barbara

As a member of the platform party (far left, second row, wearing a peach-colored hood for public health), I was struck by the way Jonathan Reckford’s message complemented that of Richard Besser, the Gillings School’s commencement speaker, the previous day.

 
A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

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Yes, you can, and those words are not out-of-date!
Dr. Richard Besser gave the commencement address in Carmichael Arena on May 11, 2019. Photo by Mackenzie Herzog.

At the Gillings School’s 79th commencement, Richard Besser, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and award-winning former chief health and medical editor for ABC News, exhorted the audience of more than 300 graduating students and hundreds of family members, friends, faculty and staff: “Don’t let anyone tell you that what you want to do isn’t possible.”

“Public health is the best field in the world,” Dr. Besser said. “You want to change the world, and I believe you will.”

New 2019 Gillings alumni are all smiles! Photo from @UNCpublichealth on Twitter.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the largest private foundation in the U.S. devoted entirely to improving the nation’s health. Dr. Besser gave just the right commencement talk — inspiring, motivating and reflective of what he had learned about the Gillings School, with a touch of humor and a dose of reality-tested advice. (In the video on YouTube, Dr. Besser’s address begins at about 30:18.)

What field could be more interconnected to almost everything that matters than public health? Water, air, food, health care, safety, security, education, equity, fitness, costs of care, prevention, immigration and more. I won’t list everything. Public health is a path to improving the world, and the world will be better when leadership transitions to public health alumni — especially, Gillings alumni.

They don’t think of the world in cynical winners-and-losers metaphors. They see the world as it is — a place of infinite possibilities, waiting for innovation; a place where place of birth, skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or differing abilities should not deprive people of their potential; a place where opportunity should be a goal for all and where, if we choose to be fairer, millions more people could lead better lives.

Looking out at the graduates and guests from the platform are, from left: Nastacia Pereira, Dr. Richard Besser, Katherine Gora Combs, Dr. Kauline Cipriani and Dr. Peggy Bentley. Photo from @UNCglobal on Twitter.

The run-up to commencement and the event itself are a tonic for the world-weary and disenchanted. To know our students (and others in public health) is to believe in the future and to renew hope that our society and the world will recover from current imbalances and once again thrive.

Congratulations, UNC Gillings alumni! Thank you for having chosen the Gillings School! You are awesome, and we will miss you. Be well, be safe and do good!
Barbara

This was just one of many shout-outs to moms at a Mother’s Day weekend commencement ceremony. Photo from @UNCpublichealth on Twitter.
Katherine Gora Combs, co-president of the Gillings School’s Student Government Association, prepared to join the platform party for the pre-ceremony procession. Photo by Elizabeth French.

Addressing our amazing graduates and faculty and staff members and guests at commencement is a joy and an honor. The Almalgam Brass Quintet has played at our school’s ceremony for years, and they are the best! Photo from @UNCpublichealth on Twitter.
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We are horrified by, and grieving over, the senseless mass shooting Tuesday evening at our sister university, UNC-Charlotte. Our sympathies are with the families and friends of the beloved students who lost their lives, and for those who were injured.

We expect that some of you reading this have been affected by the tragedy at UNCC. Like me, when I heard about the shooting, many of you may have scanned the news, anxiously looking for confirmation that someone you know at UNCC was safe from harm. For some families, there is only pain, and we feel deeply for them. Please reach out for support if you need help. Counseling services are available for students through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and for faculty and staff through UNC’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). We also would encourage you to connect with friends, fellow students, colleagues, faculty and staff members at Gillings whom you would feel comfortable reaching out to. As Chancellor Guskiewicz shared in his message, do not hesitate to contact 911 for an emergency or University Police at (91) 962-3951 if you ever feel threatened or in danger. Please also consider downloading and using the LiveSafe app. I’m going to do that today.

Guns and interpersonal violence are public health issues. As I wrote on my blog only three days ago, we cannot be safe if guns are available for purchase to nearly anyone who desires one. I believe firmly, as do many of the most respected people in public health, that guns should not be readily accessible. They have no place in schools, universities, concert venues, houses of worship, hospitals, homes or many of the countless other settings in which people have been gunned down. We cannot even fully understand the extent of the problem – or determine effective solutions – without supporting more and better research into this urgent public health problem. Rules prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from doing this important research are without any credible rationale and should be undone.

As a society, we must go beyond mourning our dead and injured and then moving on. If Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech did not change minds; Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and Parkland did not change minds; Pittsburgh, Sri Lanka and Christchurch did not change minds (in this country, although the prime minister and parliament of New Zealand acted swiftly and resolutely), and so many more, it seems naïve to think that something will come along to change votes. I’m not a political strategist, but doing what we have been doing is not making us safer. It seems to me that gun control must become a movement in which we collectively say that we are done electing candidates who do not support strong controls on gun access and research to demonstrate effective prevention of gun violence.

We have many friends, colleagues and loved ones at UNC-Charlotte. With this in mind, and with thanks to the wonderful staff in our Office of Student Affairs for thinking of this idea and following through with it, we are creating a banner – from all of us at the Gillings School to everyone at UNC-Charlotte. We will post the banner in Armfield Atrium over the next several days so anyone who wants to add a message can do so. We plan to send the banner next Monday, May 8. Please join us in this small gesture by taking a moment to sign.
Barbara

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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Six months to the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and on the last day of Passover, a horrific shooting at Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego on Saturday has us again grieving the senseless loss of precious life, terrible injuries and untold trauma. We condemn the anti-Semitism at the root of this unspeakable act. Committing this hate crime in a house of worship – a place of peace where people come together to celebrate, share in and give thanks for the profound gifts of creation – is a violation beyond words. This act connects to the horror last week of Sri Lanka and, before that, the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings, the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue, in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, and the murders in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston. These actions differ only in scale and in specific target. Their motivation is the same: hatred, coupled with the desire to strike terror into the heart of communities around the world. Ironically, these multi-denominational killings show that no religion is safe from persecution, no people are safe and no sacred space is above defiling. None of us will be safe until we all are safe. We cannot be safe if guns are available for purchase to nearly anyone who desires one.

Here, at UNC-Chapel Hill, we also are facing down racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other isms. We have seen white supremacists come to our campus; we have found racist graffiti on our monuments; we have found (most recently) anti-Semitic fliers in one of our libraries; and we were left stunned and outraged by an inappropriate performance at a UNC conference intended to explore ways to mitigate the challenges of Gaza. There is undoubtedly more that I don’t know about. These manifestations of hatred also aim to strike fear in us, most especially in those toward whom they are specifically targeted. We need to push, with every muscle we have, against these forms of hatred. I am grateful to Gillings School faculty and staff members, students and alumni, who, every day, work actively to create an inclusive, just, equitable School, University and society. This is not easy work, but it is at the foundation of a peaceful, healthy world. The more people taking part in this work, the more likely we are to counter the hatred we decry.

As shared in Interim Chancellor Guskiewicz’s message, if you need help, the following campus resources are available:

  • Counseling and Psychological Services for students: 919-966-3658.
  • The University’s Employee Assistance Program is available for faculty and staff: 877-314-5841.

If you ever feel threatened or in danger, please call 911 in an emergency situation or contact University Police at 919-962-3951. If you have not done so already, please download the LiveSafe app and use it. And, of course, many of us across the Gillings School have open doors to you.
Barbara

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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As many were celebrating Easter Sunday and Passover under a beautiful blue Carolina sky and elsewhere, a horrible tragedy unfolded halfway around the world, in Sri Lanka. We are saddened and sickened at the scale of the tragedy in Sri Lanka, where more than 300 people died and another 500 were injured when churches and hotels were bombed. We at the Gillings School grieve with those who lost family, friends and loved ones. They also lost businesses, churches and any feeling of safety that remained 10 years after fighting ended in the country.  We continue to denounce hatred and violence and work with passionate commitment to make the world healthier and safer for all. We remain committed to being a place where we welcome, value and learn from individual differences and perspectives.

Some of you may be personally touched by this tragedy. We echo Chancellor Guskiewicz, in his message on Sri Lanka, in urging you to reach out for support if needed. Thank you, all of you, for everything you do – large and small – to uphold values of diversity, inclusion, respect and equity.
Barbara

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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