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Advancing Health Equity Prominent Theme of Milton Academy Conference on Global and Public Health

On Sunday, May 21, Milton Academy students participated in the Humanities Workshop’s Student Conference on Public Health hosted at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. 

This was the latest event in the Humanities Workshop series, a collaborative initiative connecting public, private, and charter schools. Each biennial program explores a single social justice issue through the lens of the humanities—the academic disciplines including arts, literature, languages, history, society, and culture. Created in 2018 by Milton faculty members Lisa Baker and Alisa Braithwaite, the initiative currently involves hundreds of students and faculty across six area high schools. 

At the event, Baker noted that the Humanities Workshop was created for three reasons: “To build meaningful connections and collaboration between our unique school communities, public and private; to promote the critical importance of a humanist approach to the urgent social issues of our times; and to teach each one of the students in this consortium to believe in their own power to make social change through civic engagement.”

Spurred by a COVID pandemic that raised immediate concern about the safety and well-being of our school communities—and a focus on the intersection of health and justice—workshop organizers chose public health and global health as this year’s workshop theme. 

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Commissioner of Public Health and Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission, opened the event with her keynote address: “Advancing Health Equity, Ending Structural Racism, and Building a Stronger Public Health System.”

Dr. Ojikutu discussed the concept of structural violence, which she described as, “the many insidious ways that social, economic, and political forces work to put certain populations at risk, andin the particularly vulnerableto poor outcomes, like morbidity and mortality.” 

Structural violence manifests itself throughout the U.S., including within Boston’s various communities, and has a disturbing effect on projected life expectancies, she said. As an example, Dr. Ojikutu contrasted the life expectancies for two Boston communities, Roxbury and Back Bay, separated geographically by just five miles. Although located close to one another, these communities are worlds apart with respect to the life expectancies of their residents, she said. Dr. Ojikutu displayed 2015-2021 census tract data indicating life expectancy for individuals in Roxbury (69 years) was more than 20 years less than for those in Back Bay (92 years). 

According to Dr. Ojikutu, the largest impacts on life expectancies come from social determinants of health at the local neighborhood level, such as “income, education, housing, and food access.” She went on to share that the root cause in the differences in the quantity and quality of these determinants is structural racism, a “system of hierarchy, privilege and power” that has historically excluded people of color. 

A barrier to dismantling this system, added Dr. Ojikutu, is our country’s traditional unwillingness to prioritize public health. She revealed that although total U.S. health care expenditures were  $4.1 trillion in 2020, only 5.4 percent of that amount was spent on public health and public health issues. 

Dr. Ojikutu stressed that COVID-19 offered many lessons for our country, some of which are helping put us on the path toward greater health equityincluding the need for community empowerment, more significant investment in public health, and greater diversity among our government leaders. She noted an important step forward was highlighted by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu when Wu revealed during her January State of the City address that two-thirds of her leadership cabinet members are people of colora fact that makes Wu’s administration the most diverse in Boston’s history. 

Overall, Dr. Ojikutu said advancing health equity must begin with greater investment in the public health sector. If our country refuses to put real effort into building and maintaining infrastructure in public health,“…we are in trouble,” she said.

Lili Njeim spoke on behalf of the Health Equity Compact, a coalition of 70 leaders of color seeking to dismantle systemic barriers to equitable health outcomes for all residents of the Commonwealth. 

Njeim’s presentation focused on her support for the “Act to Advance Health Equity,” legislation currently pending before the Massachusetts state legislature. The act aims to prioritize health equity in state government, require and standardize reporting on health equity data, and improve access to and quality of care. Njeim invited audience members to visit the EMK Institute lobby after her presentation to sign a petition in support of the bill.

Njeim also urged students to get involved in advocacy work around an issue they are interested in, including contacting their local legislators, joining a peer advocacy group, or writing articles for a local newspaper. 

“It’s so important to use your voices,” Njeim said. “You can start by discussing issues in your school with your friends or in your community. It is challenging, and important to remember that political change often takes time. But every step forward is progress.”

The event also provided an important opportunity for dozens of consortium students to share and discuss their public health project work and learning. In addition to the conference style programming, the event also featured a collaborative art project—hosted by Milton Academy’s Artists with a Social Conscience and Comics with a Cause—for attendees to experience. 

Click here to view photos from and video of the May 21 event. 

In February, Workshop organizers convened a panel discussion to examine challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of supporting mental health—particularly among young people in our communities. Click here to watch video of the February 6 panel discussion—which was hosted by Boston College High School. 

The Humanities Workshop’s 2022–2023 consortium schools include Boston College High School, Boston Collegiate Charter School, Boston International Newcomers Academy, John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, Milton Academy, and Phillips Academy Andover. More information is available on the workshop’s website