Sunday, December 21, 2008

Social Justice, Public Health, and the Pursuit of Happiness

The health department where I am currently employed is the recipient of a three-year social justice grant from a large national foundation. Despite a steep learning curve vis-a-vis emergency preparedness, the coordination of our local Medical Reserve Corps, and developing wellness programs for town employees, the social justice mission of our little health department is one of the most intriguing aspects of my new workplace.

When one generally thinks of public health, one thinks of communicable and infectious diseases, vaccinations, disease surveillance, and epidemiology. But I am learning that access to health care, food insecurity, and access to adequate housing can all be seen under the umbrella of public health, especially when looking at these issues through a social justice lens.

In addition to our social justice grant, our health department also boasts a Cambodian outreach worker who is responsible for outreach to the Cambodian refugee community in our area, a sizeable cohort which has varying levels of need vis-a-vis health care access and other social issues.

For American-born citizens, refugees and immigrants alike, free and equal access to adequate health care is indeed a privilege in this country, but it is a privilege that many of us prefer to view as a basic human right.

Along with housing, employment and education, my progressive heart wants to see every American have free and unfettered access to as much education as his or her heart desires; comfortable and affordable housing; gainful employment; sufficient quality and quantity of food; and high-quality and accessible health care. Call me a bleeding heart, but my personal vision of social justice includes what I see as essential components of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In terms of my work as a Public Health Nurse, I want to remind myself that the "public" aspect of my job entails my responsibility to the public, the people who live within the geographic area of my jurisdiction. The Human Rights Commission in our town is very active, and I see part of my duty as the PHN to reach out to this group (and others) who spend their time assuaging the suffering of our homeless, hungry, and uninsured.

Aside from the nuts and bolts (and syringes) of my work, I want to delve into the area of social justice wholeheartedly. There is nothing more worth fighting for in my book, so why not start right here at home?
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