Eriel Deranger speaking on stage

APHA President Tom Quade grew up singing in the church choir. And he says the experience isn’t so different from advocating on behalf of public health.

At today’s APHA Annual Meeting Opening General Session, Quade told attendees about his nearly 88-year-old father, who still conducts the choir, and the bodily motions he used to lower and raise the volume of singers’ voices. When he wanted a delicate sound, Quade said, his father would crouch low, elbows bent in front of him, moving slightly to the sound. When he wanted to fill the church with joyous sound, he would straighten his posture and bring his arms and hands up into the air. With the current challenges facing public health, Quade said now is the time to raise the volume on our collective voice — to stand up loudly in support of health as a human right.

“We’re in a time now that requires us to find that big noise when it comes to public health advocacy,” he said to applause. “Fill the halls of Congress with the sound of music.”

Just about one year ago today, Quade began his tenure as APHA president, feeling “on top of the world.” Shortly after, the election happened — and well, we all know what’s happened with that. Of course, as public health workers, Quade said we all know the frustration of working hard only to have the finish line moved farther away. But now, he said, it feels like it’s the starting line that’s been moved — moved even farther backward. Advocates such as APHA worked so hard to help secure passage of the Affordable Care Act and while the law isn’t perfect and needs improvement, Quade said it was a huge first step in ensuring the right to affordable health care. Now, instead of improving the ACA, we’re “finding ourselves defending the starting line,” Quade said.

Fortunately, Quade — and the thousands of public health workers in the audience — are hardly about to back down. After all, Quade said, if we accept that health is a human right, then we must work tirelessly and sometimes even disruptively to ensure that right for all.

Dig down deep and “sing out for the population’s health,” Quade told attendees. “Make it a song of hope.”

Quade had the honor of following video remarks from legendary civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who had to cancel his live appearance at the Opening Session at the last minute to stay in Washington, D.C., and oppose the White House’s tax proposal. (A proposal that Lewis described as a “tax cut for the rich that will be paid for by people young and old and a generation yet unborn.”) He told thousands of Annual Meeting attendees: We see America headed back in time.

“We cannot, we must not let this happen,” Lewis said. “Be vigilant and stay informed.”

He added: “We must never give up — never give up when faced with the question of looking out for our brothers and sisters.”

He ended with words of encouragement for the future — something many of us desperately needed to hear.

“I thank you for standing up and speaking out for the dignity and worth of every human being,” Lewis said. “I believe in my heart of hearts that justice will prevail.”

Of course, climate change — the theme of this year’s Annual Meeting — was also center stage at the Opening General Session. APHA’s Executive Director Georges Benjamin welcomed attendees to the opening, noting that the meeting is the capstone event of APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health. Because APHA likes to walk the walk when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, Benjamin reported that this year’s Annual Meeting canceled its hotel shuttling service and reduced its traditionally phone book-size paper program. APHA has removed major fossil fuels and oil companies from its investment portfolio.

“Let us harness the political will to prevent climate change and protect the public’s health,” Benjamin said.

The session’s keynote speaker Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, an indigenous activist and a founding member and the first executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, began her speech acknowledging the indigenous people driven from the lands of Georgia and the African slaves who built the state.

“We have always been here,” she said of indigenous people, “we were never discovered.”

Deranger told attendees that climate change caused by human activity is an imminent threat to indigenous people and their communities worldwide. She explained the meaning of the indigenous word “dené,” which describes the idea that people flow from the Earth. It’s a word she wants her children to know and understand, but industrial forces are standing in the way.

A member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Northern Alberta in Canada, Deranger told attendees about the community of Fort Chipewyan, a region downstream from the Alberta Tar Sands. Fort Chipewyan is a fly-in community, meaning its limited accessibility requires residents to rely heavily on traditional food sources. Now the tar sands — an extremely heavy crude oil — and the rush to extract it from the Earth is contaminating the local environment and water and sickening the people who live there, Deranger said. And considering Alberta is home to one of the world’s largest recoverable oil patches in the world, the fight to protect the lives of local indigenous people is akin to David vs. Goliath.

“The battle over the tar sands has come down to the fundamental right to exist for indigenous people,” she said.

Just a few examples of the harms related to tar sands extraction, according to Deranger: the extraction industry uses 170 billion liters of water every year and that number is only expected to increase. The leftover wastewater — then laden with harmful chemicals — ends up in massive toxic waste pools that can leach into drinking water systems and contaminate food. The tar sand extraction industry is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in Canada, she said. And the biggest client of the tar sand industry? The United States.

With dwindling abilities to rely on traditional food sources, Deranger said many in her community are now forced to rely on Western-style groceries. But because it costs so much to transport groceries into the remote community, costs are prohibitive: a gallon of milk, she said, can cost up to $17, a loaf of bread is $8. The result is that indigenous people are forced to participate in the very system that’s destroying their lands, Deranger told attendees, and leading to greater burdens of disease.

Solving climate change, she said, means indigenous people must have an equal seat at the table. She noted that the Paris climate accord contains important references to indigenous peoples’ rights that can help drive change at the local level, where it’s needed most. It’s time, Deranger said, for the world’s leaders to “decolonize” research and allow indigenous people and systems to be incorporated into climate work.

“I want to change the game so that my children have a chance,” she told attendees. “Climate may change our health, but it also provides us with an opportunity to start anew.”

APHA’s Benjamin added: “It’s our planet and we control what happens to it.”

Top photo: Keynote speaker Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, an indigenous rights and climate activist, speaks at this year’s Opening General Session. Photo by Jim Ezell/courtesy EZ Event Photography

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