APHA/California Endowment Summit speakers

Godwin Higa has a proven formula for helping schoolchildren rise above the trauma in their lives.

“It’s about relating to the students and really opening your heart,” he said during today’s APHA/California Endowment Summit, “Building Power and a Narrative of Belonging to Create a More Inclusive Society,” which took place in conjunction with the APHA 2018 Annual Meeting and Expo in San Diego.

“Lead with compassion by walking in the shoes of the people who are suffering,” said Higa, the recently retired principal of Cherokee Point Elementary School in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood. He led the charge there to adopt a trauma-informed school model that supports kids via a culture of support and mutual respect. Following adoption of the policy, Higa reported that the school had zero suspensions during the last four years of his tenure.

Diana Ross, not the singer but the executive director of the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network also in City Heights, asked attendees at the summit to “consider the radical idea that health is dependent on power.”

And how does one acquire the agency to make an impact in their lives and communities? With power, Ross said. (She added that sometimes women can think of power as a negative quality because we’ve been raised to “be nice” — a comment that yielded murmurs of agreement from the audience.)

“My goal is not to be nice,” Ross said. “My goal is to be effective on behalf of the communities I serve.”

She spoke about her organization’s success in building power among residents in an area with “horrible health disparities,” such as high asthma and pedestrian death rates and the region’s highest rate of children ending up in jail. However, empowering students and their parents helped bring about significant changes, such as more inclusive school lunch policies, new skate parks and a partnership with the juvenile justice system.

“I know that through power, I can make big dreams happen,” she said. “And I know that through power, I can make sure that my family, that my neighbors, that the communities I work in, are going to have good health outcomes. That really matters.”

Jesse Mills, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of San Diego, among his many hats, entreated summit attendees to “build a more inclusive narrative to help in crafting a more inclusive society.” How do we do that? Listen. Speak your story. And “learn each other’s languages, including mother tongues, but also that expression that comes from deep within each of us,” Mills said.

The summit’s opening session offered just a glimpse into the breakout sessions that followed and that highlighted the California Endowment’s “Building Healthy Communities” initiative. Now in its eighth year, the $1 billion effort is designed to improve health-supporting policies statewide and take 14 California communities “devastated by health inequities into places where all people and neighborhoods thrive.”

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams dropped in to give a few remarks at the beginning of the summit, telling audience members, “I appreciate the work that you are doing.”

He said a forthcoming report will demonstrate the link between community health and prosperity and give communities tools to improve both.

“I want to challenge you to think about how you can do your part to help communities come together…to achieve better health through better partnerships by being better listeners and better communicators,” Adams said. “I, as the nation’s doctor, stand ready to work with you.”

At top from left to right, APHA/California Endowment Summit speakers Godwin Higa; Surgeon General Jerome Adams; Anthony Iton and Steve Eldred, both from the California Endowment; Diana Ross; and Jesse Mills. Photo by Donya Currie