IHP Human Rights: Foundations, Challenges, and Advocacy
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Washington, DC 2013 Letter Home
Written by: The Students of IHP Health & Community – Spring Track 2
Welcome to Washington D.C.!
After a quick goodbye to the parents, we were ushered into an orientation to our host city, our program, and most importantly, to each other. Two weeks after that first meeting, it’s hard to imagine we didn’t know one another. For the first few days our Trustees Fellow, Sarah White, led us in a variety of activities to discover what kind of community we wanted to build for the semester. After a relatively painless round of memorizing 29 new names, we were off and running, learning about non-violent communication from a group of rock-star alums called “The Collective,” considering themes of diversity and cultural sensitivity, and drafting our own social contract. Meeting more alumni over a delicious Moroccan dinner later in the week helped us see how a strong community will be ours for years to come. While faculty and staff helped guide us into a sense of what challenges we would face over the upcoming months, we soon took the initiative in our group bonding. We’ve celebrated one birthday, eaten many meals together, and shared many stories. So far we’ve found out that together we speak 19 languages, hail from states all over the country, and have lived in South Africa, Denmark, Germany, France, Israel, Hong Kong, India, Panama—and many other countries. We’ve played one round of “Secrets” where we try and guess which random secret belongs to which one of us, but I have a feeling there aren’t enough rounds to capture the amazing contributions we all have to the group.
We have been warmly accommodated by the William Penn House, a quaint hostel in the Southeast quadrant of the city only a few blocks from the Capitol. We managed to live comfortably in the space, playing board games in the living room and utilizing the kitchen for dinners and brunches we prepared for the group. The space was also home to our first few lectures, activities, and guest speakers. You would think that getting thirty students to live together in tight quarters would get messy, but not so! We still constantly refer to ourselves as “honeymooners.” Living together has brought about some great conversations and community bonding that’s sure to hold strong throughout the rest of our travels.
Washington D.C. was an amazing place to get our first insight into the program and the health issues that we will be learning about—it truly is the heart of the nation. While it is the capitol city, we were witness to the many discrepancies between policymakers and residents. On one of the first days of the program, we split up into groups and explored different neighborhoods including Anacostia, U Street, Capitol Hill, Logan Circle, Southwest, and Georgetown. As we walked around, we looked at housing conditions, the availability of green spaces, and access to health clinics and other services. Some of us talked to local residents and others even walked into health clinics and got tested for HIV! Towards the end of the program, we had the amazing opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and lobby our senators and congresspeople to maintain global health as a priority in upcoming budget debates. We met with legislative assistants and advocated for a fully-funded, integrated approach to global health issues. The staff were engaged, welcoming, open to our ideas, and it was overall a great experience to be able to meet with such influential people.
We were also able to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama during our stay. Despite the chilly weather, we layered our clothing and walked to the Mall to witness this amazing event. Some woke up early and had tickets so they could stand closer to the President. Most of us got there around 10am and watched as the President was sworn in to office. Hearing his inspiring speech in person added to the energy of the day. We were grateful that we were in D.C. just in time for this unforgettable event.
Not to fret, we have been spending some hours in class. Two faculty members will be traveling with us for the entire semester. Shanti Avirgan teaches “Health, Culture, and Community” and “Globalization and Health”; Alison Swartz teaches “Introduction to Public Health: From Biology to Policy” and “Community Health Research Methods.” Brief descriptions of their experience can be found here: http://www.sit.edu/studyabroad/faculty_hcc.cfm. Some major cross-cutting themes we’ve been engaging with these past two weeks are: Advocacy and activism, health disparities, social determinants of health, and experiences of health and illness narratives.
Jeremy, our lovely country coordinator, provided us with the opportunity to really engage with the community in D.C. with his many connections in the public health sphere and beyond. We heard from guest lecturers from a variety of different fields, from activism and advocacy to global health research. These lectures worked nicely to complement our courses and added a diverse array of perspectives on the state of health in D.C., the United States, and globally. Additionally, last week we broke up into five groups of six people and visited different NGOs around the city. Each group met with two organizations over the course of the afternoon—some examples of places we visited were The National Coalition for the Homeless, The Latin American Youth Center, The Heritage Foundation, Catholics for Choice, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. We met with one or two individuals from each organization and had the opportunity to discuss their work with them. It was great exposure to some really influential organizations and it was amazing to be able to talk with them in such intimate settings. We are all leaving feeling much more connected to this city than we ever expected could be possible in just two weeks and had the chance to really engage with the people and the health system.
To sum it all up, these past two weeks have been stupendous. We spent time exploring D.C. and gained a sense of how we can compare our domestic health system with those we’ll encounter abroad. We even learned what a half-smoke was! Now we're ready to take on Brazil. We're eager to learn about and engage with new cultures. The William Penn House has been very busy with people cleaning, packing, and getting ready to leave. A few students gave a presentation on the do's and don'ts of Brazilian customs so hopefully we’ll remember to refer to soccer as “football.” We're all going to learn samba and be all-star dancers when we come home. Before we leave for Brazil, we want to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported us this far. We love you and we'll talk to you soon!
-The Students of IHP Health & Community – Spring Track 2