PIH's Institute for Health and Social Justice helps build movement for health and rights

More than 10,000 people from across the United States and around the world converged in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this summer for the first-ever U.S. Social Forum.  Nearly a thousand workshops, plenaries, concerts, and film screenings addressed the theme “Another world is possible. Another US is necessary.”

Based on the model of the World Social Forum, the U.S. Social Forum was a gathering of activists, community leaders, students, and professionals committed to creating a more just and sustainable society. Critical social issues ranging from global warming to militarism to dismantling racism led to an engaging exchange of ideas. 

At the forum, the Institute for Health and Social Justice (IHSJ), the education and advocacy arm of PIH, helped lead a four-day course titled “Promoting Health for All,” which explored the connections between politics, economics, oppression, and health. Over 40 participants discussed a broad range of topics that affect health and access to health care in the U.S., including trade, debt, war, and discrimination. 

The IHSJ joined with the People’s Health Movement and other health rights groups to offer the course under the banner of the International People’s Health University. The Hesperian Foundation, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Iowa, and Doctors for Global Health also co-sponsored the course.

Drawing on a wealth of personal knowledge and experiences, course faculty and participants outlined how the current US health care system fails to meet the needs of the most vulnerable—people living in poverty, people without insurance, people of color, women, and children—and projects that example as a model for the world.

For many of the participants, these issues were not abstract concepts, but challenges they and their communities struggle to overcome every day. 

One participant, a practicing nurse who works with migrant farmworkers in Florida, spoke of her own childhood as an undocumented farmworker, and the many threats to health these workers face every day. 

“You’re exposed to pesticides and other chemicals on your job.  Then maybe you get sick, but you can’t get to the doctor because you live on your boss’s farm with no transportation.  Finally your boss sends you to the doctor with a company translator.  The translator hears everything you say and can change it when he translates for the doctor.  You have no control and no confidentiality,” she said. “If you try to make any trouble, or you don’t get better, your boss will have you deported.”

Other participants spoke of their experiences with racism, homelessness, and poverty, and how these barriers prevented them and their loved ones from receiving the care they needed.

The course included presentations and working groups intended to initiate popular campaigns for the US-based chapter of the People’s Health Movement.  Working group topics included trade and health, health of underserved communities, militarism and environmental health, and advocating for the right to health.

Though the People’s Health Movement has helped many countries around the world build powerful coalitions to advocate for health issues, few people in the US are familiar with the group’s work.

“What happens here affects the rest of the world.  If we want to change unjust trade regimes and international policy that denies poor people around the world the right to health care, we have to start at home,” said Hesperian Foundation Executive Director Sarah Shannon.

She related a story from a recent international meeting of the People’s Health Movement in Bhopal, India. 

“In one of the sessions, I was seated next to a woman from a very rural area of Bangladesh.  She was a poor woman, dressed in a faded sari and plain sandals.  When I introduced myself, she said, ‘Oh!  You are from the United States!  It is good you are working to build the People’s Health Movement there.” Shannon said. “The woman smiled and took my hand.  ‘We all need a movement for right to health in the United States,’ she continued, looking directly into my eyes.  ‘Please, if there is anything I can do to help you, tell me.  I will do anything I can to help you.’”

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More information on the international People’s Health Movement can be found at www.phmovement.org.  For information on the US chapter of the People’s Health Movement, please visit www.phm-usa.org.  The next International People’s Health University course will be held in Savar, Bangladesh in November 2007.  The course outline and application is online at http://www.phmovement.org/iphu/en/node/38.

[published August 2007]