Friday, May 16, 2014

Author Isabel Wilkerson to keynote this year’s Opening General Session

"They did not cross the turnstiles of customs at Ellis Island, they were already citizens. But where they came from they were not treated as such."

Those are words written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in the best-selling nonfiction book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.” The book — appropriately described as “epic” by many reviewers — chronicles the story of black migration out of the American South, better known in history books as the Great Migration. Wilkerson tells the story of the millions who left in search of better lives through the experiences of three black Americans: a sharecropper who left Mississippi for Chicago; a surgeon who left Louisiana for Los Angeles; and a young man who fled Florida for New York after hearing that his employers were planning to lynch him for organizing fellow citrus pickers in support of better working conditions. All three stories are woven into Wilkerson’s account of the Great Migration and how it shaped our country and communities. 

Wilkerson will talk about her experience putting together the 640-page book during her keynote speech at this year’s Opening General Session in New Orleans. According to Wilkerson’s website, the book is the “story of how the northern cities came to be, of the music and culture that might not have existed had the people not left, the consequences North and South and, most importantly, of the courageous souls who dared to leave everything they knew for the hope of something better.” For public health practitioners, the underlying intersections between the book’s themes and the work of public health are sure to jumpstart some interesting discussions and are undoubtedly relevant to this year’s Annual Meeting theme of “Healthography: How Where You Live Affects Your Health and Well-Being.”

“The Warmth of Other Suns” was named to more than 30 best-of-the-year lists, including those in the New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post. Wilkerson also received the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize and the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, among many others. 

At this point, many of you may be thinking about reading the award-winning book before the November Annual Meeting. If that’s the case, why not join the club? “The Warmth of Other Suns” will be the focus of APHA’s first-ever Annual Meeting Book Club, which will gather in New Orleans to discuss the book and how it relates to today’s big public health issues. Sign up to join the Annual Meeting Book Club, which officially kicks off in August, and check back with the Annual Meeting site for upcoming details. Also, consider purchasing your copy of “The Warmth of Other Suns” through AmazonSmile, which will donate a percentage of your purchase to support APHA.

This year’s Opening General Session is Sunday, Nov. 16, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

P.S. Mark your calendars, public health people! Registration and housing for this year’s APHA Annual Meeting opens June 3!

Wilkerson photo courtesy Joe Henson

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Looking back, moving forward as APHA heads to New Orleans

Bittersweet. That’s one way to describe getting ready for APHA’s 142nd Annual Meeting & Exposition in New Orleans. Bittersweet because we’re thrilled to bring the world’s largest public health gathering to one of the nation’s most unique, vibrant and resilient cities. At the same time, one can’t help but think about the devastating events that led to this year’s Annual Meeting location.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans, causing the levees to break and the city to flood. For days, images of residents stranded on rooftops and in evacuation centers without food and water dominated the news. It seemed unreal. New Orleans was under water and rescue efforts seemed painfully, unjustly slow. In the wake of one of the worst natural disasters in American history, serious gaps in the country’s emergency response system were utterly exposed for the whole world to see. It was truly and terribly shocking.

The devastation in New Orleans was at the forefront of conversation at APHA headquarters in Washington, D.C. As Association leaders, members and staff discussed how the public health community could help in the aftermath, a big decision also had to be made regarding that year’s Annual Meeting, which was slated to convene in New Orleans in just a couple months. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough time. Even though APHA leaders very much wanted to bring the support of thousands of public health workers to New Orleans, city officials said they were unable to accommodate such a large crowd so soon after the disaster. The 2005 Annual Meeting was pushed back to December and would gather in Philadelphia instead.

Now, it is with great pleasure and anticipation that APHA gets ready to bring an estimated 13,000 public health workers, advocates, leaders, researchers, teachers and supporters to New Orleans. APHA conventions staff tells me that the 2014 APHA Annual Meeting and Exposition, which will run Nov. 15-19, is shaping up to be one of the best ever (and, hopefully, one of the few Annual Meetings that doesn’t require attendees to lug around their cumbersome winter coats).

Even though it’s been nearly nine years since Katrina, the storm will surely be the proverbial elephant in the room. And why shouldn’t it be? It takes longer than nine years to rebuild a city, not to mention a community. In August, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center released a report on the city’s progress since Katrina, finding both positive and worrisome results. While the regional economy continues to improve and the city has greatly expanded bike lanes and crime rates are below pre-Katrina levels, serious questions remain about whether all New Orleans residents are benefiting during the recovery.

For instance, the report found that while service-sector employment for women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds has increased, the rate has fallen among men, especially among black men. The number of black men who obtain bachelor’s degrees has not budged since 2000, even though education is consistently linked to lifelong economic security and good health. Also, the New Orleans metro area has experienced double the number of “unhealthy” air quality days when compared to what the report describes as an “aspirational” metro area such as Houston, Texas.

Many of these issues have a direct connection to this year’s Annual Meeting theme of “Healthography: How where you live affects your health and well-being.” In fact, in a city whose landscape and social fabric was forever changed, the notion that “place matters” seems nearly tangible.

At the end of the day, New Orleans isn’t that different from the practice of public health. Both move forward in the face of great challenge and tragedy, both keep going despite people saying it can’t be done, and both are filled with the resilient belief that success is possible.

“This year’s Annual Meeting will be a special one,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin. “Nine years ago, we watched in disbelief as the waters kept rising. The storm quite literally swept away our collective belief that something like this couldn’t possibly happen here — in our country. Now the question is: What lessons have we learned and are we putting them to use in improving people’s lives and building healthier communities?” 

Visit APHA to learn more about APHA’s 142nd Annual Meeting & Exposition. We can’t wait to see you in the Big Easy!

— K.K.

Above photo courtesy