Recognizing our biases and confronting the stark truths of our nation’s history and its ongoing, real-time legacies are at the root of tackling American violence, according to speakers at today’s Opening General Session.

Lisa Carlson“Inequity kills,” said APHA President Lisa Carlson at the session, which officially kicked off the APHA 2020 Annual Meeting and Expo and welcomed thousands of attendees to APHA’s first all-virtual meeting.

Carlson and her fellow opening session speakers all zeroed in on the social determinants that underlie a person’s risk of violence and poor health, particularly calling out the role of racism and bias. Unfortunately, most people still see violence as a legal problem, rather than a public health one, said speaker Shankar Vedantam, social science correspondent with NPR and host of the podcast and radio show “Hidden Brain.” And that’s a problem, he said, because applying a public health lens isn’t only a powerful way to understand the problem of violence, it’s a powerful way to confront it as well.

Georges Benjamin and Shankar VendantamIn a conversation with APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, Vedantam discussed the role of unconscious bias in violence and the dangers of politicization. While not everyone wants to recognize their bias, research suggests we all carry the thumbprint of our culture in our minds — including the police, he said. Unconscious bias “flows under the surface” in a way that doesn’t always call attention to itself, but it has profound impacts on people’s lives, he said.

Applying a public health lens to violence could help bring people together on systemic solutions to bias and its harmful outcomes — such as making sure officers live in the communities they police. But politicization often gets in the way, he said, pulling people into opposing camps on issues that requires collective, evidence-based action.

“Once you go down the route of politicizing something, it’s very difficult to pull back,” Vedantam told attendees. “It keeps us from seeing the data right in front of us.”

Bryan StevesonSpeaker Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama, started by noting that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more than 2.2 million people imprisoned. One in three black males in the U.S. will spend some time in prison, he said.

“We need an era of truth and justice,” said Stevenson, a public interest lawyer. “We are all made ill by our failure to confront the pollution of bigotry that is all around us.”

He called on attendees to take four steps toward achieving equity and justice:

  1. get closer to the vulnerable and those suffering, incarcerated and marginalized;
  2. change the narrative;
  3. be willing to do uncomfortable things; and
  4. stay hopeful, he said, noting that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice."

woman singing, man playing guitar in front of AJPH logo, man playing bass, man playing keyboard

Ultimately, he said the health of our communities must not be judged on how well the powerful and privileged are doing, but by the health and well-being of the most vulnerable and excluded.

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth,” Stevenson said, “the opposite of poverty is justice.”

The session set the stage for conversations that will go on during the next three days of the Annual Meeting about the power of not only of working together, but of reaching out to make new partnerships.

“If we are going to tackle huge issues that impact health like poverty and racism, the truth is, we can’t do that alone,” Carlson said. “The future of public health is cross sectors.”

Registered attendees can watch the entire Opening General Session recording.

Photos, from top: APHA President Lisa Carlson; APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin talking with Shankar Vedantam of NPR's "Hidden Brain" podcast; Bryan Stevenson makes a key point during the session; and the session closes out with the 'Public Health Jamz' concert featuring public health professionals. Photos courtesy The Nation's Health.