Letter Home from Washington DC

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care program:

Dear Friends and Family,

Namaste from India! Our group has recently arrived in Delhi and as we settle in with our homestay families and begin to delve into the India portion of the program, we have also been reflecting on our time spent in Washington DC as part of our program’s launch.  During our launch, we worked with Health and Community program director Jen Jones and program manager Sherrilynn Colby-Bottel.

During these first two weeks, we became acquainted with one another and learned about each other’s interests and backgrounds. Spending time together living communally in a hostel near the National Mall helped us bond together as a group and build a solid foundation of support for our upcoming travels throughout the semester. We took turns cooking meals for each other in large groups and learned how to shop for a meal for 40! Though we were skeptical of our own cooking skills at first, we were quite pleased with the outcome!

Being located near the Capitol allowed us to join in the festivities surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We heard President Obama speak, as well as past Presidents Clinton and Carter, and even Oprah. It was a moving and inspirational reminder of our country’s history and it felt particularly important to join this event prior to traveling to the other countries in our program.

We had four introductory classes to the courses we will be taking during the semester from our faculty, Dr. Megan Wainwright and Dr. Moriah McSharry McGrath. We learned about the discipline of medical anthropology and methods of carrying out ethnographies in our Health, Culture, and Community and Research Methods classes. Our first classes in Globalization and Care, as well as Public Health, helped us to identify the macro-level forces that affect the way we receive and experience health care in different contexts.

We were also fortunate to be joined by several guest lecturers, many of whom work in advocacy and public health organizations at both the local and global level. An introduction to the Affordable Care Act strengthened our understanding of the health care issues many states across the country are facing. Our guest lecturer also helped us to understand why certain reforms have been so difficult to pass, as well as how the financing of ACA is likely to play out in the upcoming months. Another guest lecturer joined us from Partners In Health, an organization that many of us were already familiar with. We discussed the success of some of the organization’s programs, which utilizes community health workers to address problems like maternal mortality in remote and rural areas. Our speaker also helped us to understand how the human right to health was discussed in President Obama’s speech during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Some of our other guest lecturers were working more closely with the Washington DC community. We heard from those advocating on behalf of the homeless with organizations such as the National Coalition for the Homeless and Neighbors First. We also heard stories from people who had once been homeless themselves. Listening to their stories, we recognized the importance of hearing first-hand from those who have experienced inequalities in access to healthcare and secure housing. We were surprised to learn about a program that Neighbors First launched, which placed people previously living in homeless shelters into their own apartments. Providing people with dignified living spaces and granting them agency over their own health proved to reduce costs in healthcare and social services significantly. Expanding our understanding of health to include personal well-being helped us to see the many social influences on health that are often lost when policies are designed by those who do not always understand the needs and experiences of the communities they seek to serve.

Our DC program also introduced us to program components that we will see in the other countries we will travel to during the semester. For example, we had a neighborhood day, in which we broke up into small groups and explored different DC neighborhoods, including Anacostia, U-Street, and Eastern Market. Learning how to navigate a new part of the city as a group and practicing our observation and interview skills was important in teaching us how we can learn from simply being in a place and using our senses. Part of our neighborhood day also involved taking photographs that represented public health. We also had several NGO site visits – an element to this program that we’ll repeat in other countries as well. Together, we visited MetroTeen Aids, an organization working in low-income neighborhoods in DC to provide peer-education on sexual health as well as testing services. Our site visit included making packets of condoms and pamphlets to distribute in different neighborhoods. Our group then split up and went into different neighborhoods where we acted as peer-educators and distributed the packets. Getting over our fear of approaching strangers was a bit challenging at first, but once we realized that many of the locals appreciated the free packets, we felt more confident.

The other NGOs we visited included Martha’s Table, a community organization providing health services, food, and clothing to communities in need in DC. Another organization is CHANGE, which works on advocating for global women’s reproductive health rights for women. We also visited the Human Rights Campaign and learned how the organization is supporting LGBTQ families in access to equal treatment in healthcare settings.

Overall, we learned from a variety of teachers in both formal and informal settings. In starting to learn about health at the global, national and community-level scale, we have built a great foundation that we will use as a platform for our learning in India, Vietnam, and South Africa.

We look forward to writing again soon with more news from India!

The Fall 2013 Health and Community students

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