Our Right to Protest is Under Assault

“Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” — Congressman John Lewis

Peaceful protestors have been redeeming the soul of America since its founding. They are among our nation’s heroes. Labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, environmental protections – all of these were spurred on through protest. Whether you enjoy a 40-hour work week, visiting the beach without oil rigs blocking out the sun, or your right to use public transportation without restriction based on the color of your skin, protestors deserve much of the thanks.

Women would have undoubtedly won the right to vote, but it was the suffragists who got it done. And the United States would have eventually withdrawn troops from Vietnam, but how many thousands of unnecessary deaths were prevented by protestors who kept the pressure on? Protestors aren’t ahead of their time. They make now the right time by appealing to our national conscience, educating the public about injustice and keeping pressure on the status quo.

Just as America’s progressive movements have relied on public protest to grow and succeed, so have they faced powerful interests working to stop change. Today, legislators are passing laws making protests more difficult, illegal in some states, and potentially lethal in others.

Since January 2017, 230 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 45 states. Thirty-six have been enacted. And 51 are pending, according to a US Protest Law Tracker created by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. An analysis of the bills by ICNL uncovered four themes that thread through the anti-protest legislation being proposed and adopted in some cases. As reported on the ICNL website, they include extreme penalties for offenses commonly related to protests; vague and overbroad provisions that can capture peaceful protesters; expanding liability; and encouraging violence against protesters. One example from legislation adopted in Florida protects a person from civil liability if they injure or kill a protestor with their vehicle when the victim is participating in a riot. The law also redefines a riot as an assembly of three or more people.

Let that sink in for a moment. A predominantly peaceful protest of people exercising their constitutional right to free speech and assembly, being mowed down by an angry motorist who disagrees with them and the driver gets a pass.

By intimidating protestors, legislators are attempting to hinder progress. These laws are an assault on our right to protest and cry out for our attention and our outrage. When you see legislators advocating for restrictions like these, look behind the curtain. Dig deeper. What interests are they really trying to protect? Think about the progressive reforms we enjoy that would have been unjustly delayed, or perhaps prevented, by laws like these. Protesters are heroes in our American story. The people who John Lewis said “got in the way … to renew the soul of our nation.”

Alcohol is Hurting Women

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this time dedicated to women’s health, it would be remiss not to reflect on a dramatic truth – women are drinking more than ever, and unfortunately, alcohol use is correlated to cancer.

Although 5-10% of breast cancers are attributed to genetic history, we now know alcohol is causally related to breast cancer. Even consumption of up to one drink per day is associated with increased risk of alcohol-related cancers (mainly breast cancer). Risk appears to be higher among heavy drinkers and binge drinkers, but even light drinkers have elevated risk.  

What does this mean for women? A lot, according to recent data. Women are closing the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge-drinking and alcohol use disorder. What was previously a 3-1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women is closer to 1-to-1 globally. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has only added to this trend. According to a RAND Corporation study, women have increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic. This is due in part to the prolonged psychological stress and increased anxiety, particularly for women with children under age 18. 

Adding to the problem, the alcohol industry is turning a blind eye to the breast cancer connection and aggressively targeting women. “Pink-washing” is a common practice. Multiple brands co-opt the pink ribbon with packaging taglines such as “Join the Fight- Drink Pink”, or “Helping Women Now.” Lower calorie alcohol options are abundant and intended to appeal to women. Overall, the industry ensures alcohol availability is pervasive. The message? Consumption is appropriate for every occasion.

So what can be done?  A combination of education and policy approaches are the best way to reduce alcohol consumption and cancer rates. Most women are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer. According to the Public Health Institute, 17% of women don’t know that drinking has a negative impact on their breast health. A 2017 telephone survey found that just 39% of respondents knew drinking alcohol increases one’s risk of getting cancer. 

Policy changes could include incorporating cancer warnings on alcohol bottles and cans – a measure being advocated for by several consumer and public health groups. Increases in alcohol tax so the industry shares the burden of harm are not only reasonable, but also appear to impact rates of binge drinking. Limiting alcohol availability and youth access to alcohol does as well. 

In a culture where alcohol is oftentimes marketed as synonymous to a good time or promoted incorrectly as a means of stress release, policy changes like these can lead to more informed behavioral decisions and healthier lifestyle choices. The bottom line is, reducing alcohol intake also reduces breast cancer risk. We can all have a role in breast cancer prevention.

Find out if you qualify for a free or low-cost mammogram here.

Susan Caldwell
Senior Program Manager, IPS

Susan Caldwell is a Senior Program Strategist at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Fact or Fiction

Misinformation About COVID-19 is a Crime that Should Have Consequences

As seen on the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Some people’s staunch allegiance to misinformation about COVID-19 was sadly unmistakable at a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 31 when the board declared health misinformation a public health crisis. Despite opposition from close to 200 people and hostility from some of speakers at a 15-hour meeting, the board became the first in the nation to take such a stand.

Unfortunately, the rancor the supervisors witnessed was hardly unique. False narratives have been creating havoc at public meetings throughout the country. The rejection of science is being confused with patriotism. Violence and hate speech are being cloaked in the American flag. And climate change is being questioned still.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned that people are dying because of misleading or inaccurate information about the efficacy of vaccines, which have proven to be highly effective. Most people believe the science, but many, being misguided or uncertain, still resist being vaccinated, enabling more contagious variants of the virus to proliferate.

Consisting of false narratives, conspiracy theories, distortions, and outright lies, misinformation is created by special interest groups for political and/or financial gain. Then it is spread through the mass media without any regard for the consequences.

Such false narratives present a threat to more than public health. They can also be linked to the record levels of violence that are currently plaguing the United States. The murder rate increased around 29 percent from 2019 to 2020 — the largest one-year spike in murder since national record-keeping began in 1960 — so even though overall crime decreased last year, 2020 was the most violent year in the 21st century. There were around 21,500 murders in 2020.

In that same span, there were 7,759 hate crimes reported in the U.S., the most in 12 years, targeting communities of color, the LGBTQ community and various ethnic groups, among others. Evidence shows these events are driven by hate speech, a type of false narrative that has been increasing throughout the world, in online forums and even political discourse. The fallacy behind hate speech is that a certain group poses a threat, which generates fear that the threats are real and will somehow impact them.

Some question the willingness of people to believe such obvious propaganda. But history shows that when ideas are repeated often enough, people’s tendency to believe them increases. That is especially true when they come from a source that seems credible, like a person of authority or an evening news broadcast. Even ideas that seem bizarre can be accepted as truth if they are spread widely throughout the population. This principle was used by Nazi propagandists during World War II to spread the idea that Jewish people were evil blights on society and deserved to be eliminated.

False narratives also play a role in events related to climate change, including the drought, ravenous wildfires, and massive floods that are causing widespread death and destruction worldwide. In this case, the false narrative is denial. The science is well-established, and the counterarguments are complete without merit, reminiscent of when the tobacco industry tried to convince us that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. Nonetheless, people who reject mainstream climate science persist, accusing reputable scientists of having hidden agendas and nefarious motives.

Some suggest that social media platforms such as Facebook should do a better job of filtering out phony stories. While this is probably a good first step, more attention should be paid to the role played by the mainstream news media in the distribution of misinformation.

Such media outlets are relied upon to give people the facts they need to make crucial decisions about their health, safety and welfare. But many of them, some trusted by tens of millions of people, have clearly been responsible for perpetuating false narratives on a regular basis. Driven by financial gain, their entire business model seems to be focused on building their audiences by creating fake news stories, ones that are simply based on whatever conspiracy theories are popular on a given day.

The Fox News Channel has, by far, the broadest reach and the most misplaced trust, specifically with its shows “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “Hannity” and “The Ingraham Angle.” Other problematic broadcast media outlets include One America News Network and Newsmax TV, but neither of them have the widespread and mainstream influence that Fox News has.

Perhaps most important of all, people need to be well-informed for our democracy to function.

The news media has always been protected by the doctrine of freedom of the press. But when a particular outlet spreads lies that work against the public interest, it should lose that protection.

In such cases, we should hold such outlets accountable by enacting truth in news reporting laws, which could be modeled after the truth in advertising laws we have now.

Most mainstream media outlets are responsible, but if a rogue operator continuously and intentionally violates its public trust, it should have its broadcast license suspended. It’s as simple as that.

Brenda Simmons

Brenda Simmons is CEO/President of the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Five Youth Engagement Strategies that Work (Even During a Pandemic)

Youth can be the most effective advocates and change makers. But for those of us in public health, engaging youth during the pandemic has been challenging for a myriad of reasons (zoom fatigue tops the list). In addition, students have busy schedules, competing interests and limited availability. This article provides five how-tos from three professionals with years of experience leading youth groups: IPS Program Manager Jovita Arellano, IPS Prevention Specialist Ana Hernandez and IPS Community and Youth Organizer Kate Santilena.

Students need flexibility

Youth and young adults are facing “zoom fatigue,” anxieties over what’s to come and many challenges that can make it hard to fully engage. It is crucial to be flexible. Listen to students and their needs. Kate makes sure to get student input on what time and day works best for her students to maximize attendance. A bonus of virtual meetings is that students can join from any location. But as we transition back to in-person, it’s a great idea to get input on a central location to meet that can be easily accessible for students.

Also allow for flexibility with the flow of content. Kate’s work is centered around alcohol and other drugs (AOD) prevention, but she also incorporates other aspects of public health to broaden students’ knowledge and keep them engaged. “We did still include AOD [education], but I wanted to tap into other things like mental health, nutrition,  physical activity and the environment because public health is everywhere and everything.” Flexibility in content allows students to expand their horizons. 

Keep it fun and have fun

No matter the age group, everyone likes to have fun, according to Ana, who runs the Young Advocates program for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative. She occasionally likes to have “silly discussions” to liven things up before the meeting and allow for a welcoming environment.

“Make sure you’re having fun and enjoying the work with youth,” Jovita explains. “Students have to see your passion in your work. If you are genuinely enjoying your time with them [the students], then they will also engage.” 

Connections are key for a greater reach

Partners can help you identify the students you want to connect with. School counselors, teachers and principals of the school you will recruit students from is a great way to get connected with youth. For the young adult population, start identifying college campus representatives, professors and advisors who know the student body. You can also use online platforms like Handshake as a tool to recruit. 

Partnerships also allow for youth-serving organizations to come together and collectively build students up. IPS Youth Coalition is a chapter of Friday Night Live in San Diego, which allows for shared learning experiences with youth from other chapters, friendly competition, and in the near future, camping trips, conferences and outdoor adventures.

Give students a good reason to come back

Community service hours are a great incentive for high school students to join your program. Tracking and maintaining sign-in sheets (google forms works great in the on-line space) can help you provide students with their completed hours for the duration of the program. They can use those community service hours on their college applications or to meet a school graduation requirement. 

College-aged students can get real world experience by joining your program. Ana is working with college campuses to offer work study payment so students can get monetary assistance while also getting experience. 

“Why should I join?” is a question you should ask yourself from a student perspective. Make sure to highlight the benefits in materials and during outreach. Jovita says she emphasizes a range of student benefits, like learning to be comfortable with public speaking, getting practice voicing opinions, meeting elected officials, connecting with leaders in the community, doing a report on their coalition work for school, earning extra credit, becoming school and community leaders, and learning to take pride in their work. 

Social media is your friend

Social Media is KEY. Youth are scrolling on social media pages and parents also use it as a tool to look for opportunities for their teens. Social media is an easy way to get your message out and to advertise your program. Have a page where you can easily share and recruit students, and have an online presence. Kate says, “Before, we were only working with two schools when we were in person, but now we work with six high schools in the area. We used social media to promote our program.” Instagram is a great place to start. Remind is another great tool to send out mass message reminders about upcoming meetings and events. 

The connections you build with youth will help advance your work. But the biggest benefit is making a positive impact in a young person’s life. 

If you would like to follow IPS’s youth efforts, please follow: 

East County Youth Coalition: @eastcountyyc

South Bay Youth 4 Change: @sby4c_

Young Advocates: @youngadvocatessd

Nancy Verdin
Special Programs Manager, IPS

Nancy Verdin is a Special Programs Manager at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

We’ve Overcome Stigma and Prejudice, Now Let’s Overcome Drugs and Alcohol

Pride Month sprang from the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. What began as an impassioned march to Central Park to commemorate the riots is now a month-long celebration at huge festivals in cities around the world, promoting dignity, equality, and self-affirmation for the LGBTQ+ community. However, as we wrap the 51st annual Pride Month, it’s important to reflect on another aspect of our community that doesn’t elevate us. In fact, it drags us down: disproportionately heavy alcohol and drug use.

Individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are 90% more likely to use alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual counterparts. More than a third (38%) of LGBTQ+ aged 18 and older reported past year marijuana use, compared to 16% reported by the overall adult population. Opioid use (including misuse of prescription opioids or heroin use) was also higher, with 9% of LGBTQ+ aged 18 or older reporting use compared to 4% among the overall adult population. In 2015, past-year meth use prevalence was more than four times higher among gay men compared to straight men. In West Hollywood, an LGBTQ-centric city, recent surveys indicate open meth use at events (74%) and at bars and clubs (68%) was an issue harming the community.

Why the heavy use of drugs and alcohol? It’s not so difficult to understand. For one, bars and clubs have been a central gathering place for us for decades, providing refuge, connection, and escape from prejudice. Alcohol has long been a backdrop in the areas where we have felt safe.

It is also largely a question of stress, self-esteem and mental health. Compared to their straight counterparts, LGBTQ+ individuals report a disproportionately higher prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – traumatic or stressful life events. A 2020 study published by the Center for American Progress revealed a dramatic picture of measures taken by LGBTQ+ Americans to avoid discrimination: more than half of respondents (54%) had hidden a relationship. Over one in three had moved away from family (32%), changed the way they dressed/mannerisms (35%) and avoided public places (33%). Alcohol and drugs, in addition to being socially normative for our community, have long been used as a poor coping mechanism and escape from internalized homophobia, rejection and shame.

So what can we do about it? It requires a comprehensive approach that includes important policy and social norms changes. On a policy level, the adoption of reasonable practices that optimize LGBTQ-centric entertainment districts — including addressing excessive bar and club density, operational mismanagement and community impact — is crucial. Pride events are another area where important policy shifts are required.

The “Tobacco Policies and Alcohol Sponsorship at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Festivals: Time for Intervention” study observed that, while sexual health promotion is common at pride events, few events have policies promoting health in other areas. The study finds that while reducing and/or eliminating alcohol sponsorship of Pride events is challenging in the near term, “…we believe it is critical to renew a conversation about critically appraising the marketing efforts of industries that sell products that disproportionately target and harm LGBT+ communities and communities of color.”

There is also tremendous progress to be made shifting away from alcohol and drugs as a normative part of our culture. Alcohol-free gathering spaces and events can be cultivated by public health practitioners, LGBTQ-centric organizations, Pride organizers and public officials. The City of West Hollywood, for example, has sponsored a large alcohol-free space at LA Pride that attracts thousands of attendees for the past seven years.

Powerful messaging and initiatives from influencers and organizations that highlight health, wellness and self-esteem will make a dramatic impact over time in changing our community’s attitudes about drugs and alcohol. It’s especially important for those who are newly coming out.

Pride is a time to celebrate all that is great about our community – all that we’ve contributed and how far we’ve come. Now’s the time to look squarely at the problematic drinking and drug use that has long plagued us and that, tragically, is born from a long history of discrimination and prejudice. Everything is already shifting for our community and this can too. A 2010 poll of 1,500 people who are already out, found that among the over-60s, the average age they had come out was 37. In the group aged 18 to 24, it was 17. What a tremendous indicator or our progress toward self-acceptance and with it, health, wellness and self-love.

Happy Pride.

David R. Shorey
Program Manager, IPS

David R. Shorey is a Program Manager at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Why We as Asian Americans Need to Step Up and Speak Out About Important Issues More Often

As seen in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

My heart was racing, and my chest felt tight. Blood was rushing to my face, and I was feeling the urge to flee. That could be the typical reaction people feel when they are faced with a physical threat. Instead, I was having these sensations because I was in a heated conversation over a text thread with an Asian American friend of mine. He was accusing me of lacking vocal support for various AAPI causes and of actually being against Asian Americans.

I had to pause, take a deep breath and calm down. I knew that I was a passionate advocate for Asian Americans. I was not going to allow an electronic conversation devoid of context strip me of my values and merit. I had served as the president of a Vietnamese American youth organization. I had volunteered at Asian American cultural festivals. And I advocate for Asian American causes like voting access and Vietnamese language courses at San Diego State University.

I wondered why I was having this reaction. Why was it so hard for me to stand up for myself that I had an actual physical aversion to it? I’ve always been one to participate, to volunteer and to support my convictions. But when it comes to being vocal and speaking out, there was, and still is, a fear that I am not the right person to be speaking. I’m worried that I’ll rock the boat and disturb those around me. I’m concerned that I will stand out and attract unwanted attention. Uncertainty has led to my hesitancy and eventually to a silencing of my voice. It’s a trait that I think is fairly common in the Asian American community in the U.S.

My experience in our Asian cultures leads me to believe that we have an established decorum regarding behavior and social hierarchies that dictate whom we listen to and trust. We revere politicians, doctors, engineers, scientists and business people because we believe in their knowledge and their success. People who challenge that decorum or speak as an authority without the expected credentials often experience derision, judgment and unwanted attention to themselves and their families. This fear of reprisal is often enough to keep us silent.

Recently, however, I have felt the needed to be more vocal. Not only myself, but Asian Americans in general need to step up and speak out about issues important to our ethnic group as a whole. We rarely tell anyone about the issues important to us, like how Asian Americans are underrepresented in corporate management and at the executive level, even in companies comprised of a majority of Asians. Or talk about how Asian American hate crimes are spiking nationally. These hate crimes are not isolated in specific cities — they are underreported because of cultural tendencies to keep our “heads down” and out of the spotlight, leading to fewer police reports.

Major Asian American history is being washed over because we aren’t discussing it enough. Before the modern, COVID-19-related anti-Asian attacks, there was Vincent Chin. He was a Chinese American immigrant murdered because he was perceived to be a foreign threat to American auto workers. The Ku Klux Klan attacked Vietnamese Americans and their shrimping boats in the South because they were a perceived threat to local fishermen. After the attacks on 9/11, Sikhs were targeted because of their dark skin, turbans and beards. Asian American hate crimes aren’t new. They’ve just been lost and forgotten because we aren’t talking about them.

Asian American voices shouldn’t be heard only when we are feeling like our lives are being threatened. We should be vocal long before and long after the news cameras turn away from us to focus on the next big headline. For us to build coalitions and gain understanding in American society, we have to join the conversation. Standing on the sidelines and waiting for things to get dire is unacceptable. The time is now.

These days, I still think really hard about the things I want to say. The gears churn as I consider who might be offended or if what I’m thinking is relevant to the conversation. I just have to keep reminding myself when I’m ready to say something, that what I have to say is, in fact, worth saying.

Michael Thai
Digital Media Specialist, IPS

Michael Thai is a Digital Media Specialist for the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

I Am a Change-Maker in My Community and Here’s My Story

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to tell you why and how you should incorporate storytelling into advocating for change in your community through media advocacy.

But first, a quick definition of media advocacy. It’s the strategic use of media to advance policy issues that benefit public health and safety. It raises issues into the local or national conversation and influences policy making.

Stories can be an important component of an organization’s media advocacy strategy. After all, humans are hard wired to respond positively to storytelling. Chemical elements in our brain are released when we hear a story. Cortisol aids in making the memory stick when we are trying to make a point. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. Oxytocin is associated with empathy, which is an important component to building, deepening, or maintaining good relationships. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson writes, “A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

Pixar Studios is, no doubt, a leader in storytelling, producing award-winning movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life. The key, according to Pixar producer Andrew Stanton, is to make me care. This is the greatest story commandment that determines the impact a story will have on its audience. Tapping into the audience’s emotions may help them understand more about the challenges your community faces. It invites people to walk in someone else’s shoes for just a moment. Our main character is perhaps someone we all know and gives us a reason to care. Or perhaps the mouthpiece for describing struggles that we may all personally share.

Sure, visual detail, well-developed characters and a juicy plot are important to whether or not a story hits the mark. But if a story engages the emotions, and better yet, provokes a reader or listener into action, then… score!

If you still need convincing that storytelling will give your media advocacy a strategic boost, consider the following: there are more than 1,200 daily newspapers and more than 1,700 commercial television stations in the U.S. There are 11 social media platforms with more than 200 million users. There are more than 1,750,000 podcasts and more than 600 million blogs worldwide.

There is no shortage of places where people can go to get their news. So this is another reason to incorporate storytelling into your media advocacy – to stand out in a saturated crowd.

The mechanics of a story are simple: it involves a character who runs into an obstacle that is eventually resolved by the end of his/her journey. Along the way, the character encounters road blocks, hurdles, and villains. But by the end of the story, the character has undergone a transformation – preferably a positive one.

Before you start crafting your story, think about the goal you are trying to achieve. What change are you advocating? Who do you need to hear your story? Why should anyone listen to you?

As you start writing, begin with a hook – the sentence that engages the audience to keep reading or listening. As you craft this vital sentence, put yourself in your audience’s shoes: why should they keep reading or listening? Did you start your article with an interesting anecdote, quote, or surprising fact? Did you ask the audience a profound question? One way to engage your reader is to stir up their emotions, whether it is happiness, enthusiasm, grief, anger or frustration. Stories help transmit emotions, which are very powerful in getting people to act or behave in a certain way, preferably in a positive way.

From there, don’t forget the basics of writing for the media: who, what, when, where, and why.

Another important detail about storytelling is to show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me, for example, how upset residents are about living near a polluting factory. Show me through their thoughts, emotions, and actions of caring for a family member who struggles everyday with asthma. Don’t be afraid to get descriptive using sensory details. Vivid description is what puts the color into an otherwise black and white landscape.

After you have led your audience through the unfolding narrative of the main character, bring them back to the key takeaway. With what message do you want your audience to leave? What is the call to action?

Incorporating stories into your media advocacy strategy is a great way to bring attention to your cause. Reporters are always looking for the human interest side of a story. And they don’t have too far to go to find it. The people and communities you are advocating for can become the heroes of a well-crafted story.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project, and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.

Wear a Mask for 100 Days: How President Biden’s call to action can restore America’s faith in public health

Wearing a face mask during a pandemic seems like a no-brainer. Public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have repeatedly endorsed the practice, along with handwashing and social distancing, as critical to curbing the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, with a new variant of the coronavirus entering the U.S., now is the time to take definitive action. And President Biden’s call for all Americans to wear a face mask for 100 days is just what the doctor ordered.

Yet there has been strong resistance over mandates to wear face masks with members of anti-mask groups claiming their person freedoms are being violated. According to one of their leaders, Ammon Bundy, who once organized armed standoffs against federal agents, “It’s not about, you know, the mandates or the mask. It’s about them not having that right to do it.”

This is really nothing new. The struggle between personal freedom and public health has been brewing for decades. Complaints about so-called Nanny-State laws, governmental protections that supposedly interfere with individual rights, actually began in the 2000s. Over the years they included mandates to wear motorcycle helmets, restrictions of smoking in restaurants and bans on sugary sodas, all of which have all been characterized as governmental overreach.

However, with the advent of the pandemic, the opposition had reached a higher level of intensity, generating a storm of controversy. Mask-wearing rules in retail environments have sparked many a meltdown, with videos going viral over the internet of individuals going ballistic, kicking and screaming, some having to be physically removed from the store.

Large public demonstrations have also become common, with anti-mask protestors getting into people’s faces, using the fact that they are not wearing a mask as an act of aggression. After one such protest in Los Angeles, the city council passed a mask-wearing law, with up to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail for those who don’t comply.

But the idea of compulsory mask-wearing, like state-mandated lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, has only served to further inflame the anti-mask groups. At one recent demonstration in Idaho, armed protestors swarmed health district offices — and some health officials’ homes — screaming and blaring air horns. In the face of such hostility and personal threats, many public health professionals have been forced to leave their jobs. Since April 1, some 181 have resigned, retired or been fired in 38 states. It’s the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history.

All this has significantly weakened America’s system of public health and severely handicapped efforts to combat the pandemic. Overwhelmed with COVID-19, many hospitals have cancelled elective procedures and some are now unable to accept any new patients. Eventually no services may be available at all, even for emergencies. In such dire circumstances, the cost of health care would be sure to skyrocket. That is, for anyone who can gain access.

Public health initiatives, along with their rules and regulations, are designed to prevent such worse-case scenarios from taking place. And they have been largely successful throughout the twentieth century, including vaccinations for polio, smallpox, and measles. Stricter driving under the influence and seat belt laws have reduced traffic fatalities. Public smoking restrictions are protecting vulnerable populations from being exposed to secondhand smoke.

While measures like these sometimes do infringe on personal freedoms, they are adopted because they serve the greater public good, which is something that government is legally obligated to do. In times of national emergency, such as with the COVID-19 pandemic, this could include temporarily closing businesses and quarantining individuals. Otherwise, we would have little chance of curbing the rates of infection and death, which have already reached unprecedented levels.

For this reason alone, mask-wearing laws could be legally passed and enforced. However, that is not how we like to do things in a democracy, nor is it what we need to do right now. What we need now is voluntary compliance. What we need now is the restoration of America’s faith in public health. President Biden’s call for masking up could be a step in that direction, but it must not be considered as a threat to personal freedom. Instead, it should be regarded as a patriotic duty, a contribution each person must make to avert a national disaster, something each American should be more than willing to do to support our democratic system of government.

Let’s remember that Joe Biden is not the first president to make such a call. President Kennedy, in his inaugural address 60 years ago, encouraged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Right now, wearing a mask for the next 100 days is something all of us can do for our country.

Dan Skiles
Consultant, IPS

Dan Skiles is a consultant and former Executive Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Black Vaccine Hesitancy Stems from a Long History of Medical Racism

Dr. Susan Moore, a Black medical doctor, recently died of COVID-19. She documented her experience leading up to her death, including being denied pain medication and proper treatment. Despite being a doctor, speaking in medical terms, and understanding the protocols, Dr. Moore was sent home and died just a couple of weeks later. In her videos, Moore blamed her poor treatment on medical racism. And, while some contest this kind of claim, medical racism in the U.S. has been ongoing since, well, since Black people came to this country in chains. The abuse, neglect, and unethical experimentation is well documented today.

At no time in history has the health of Black Americans equaled that of White Americans. From the days of slavery until now, the White medical community’s policies, practices and prejudices have had an enormous impact on the health of Blacks. When Africans began populating this country, mainly as slaves and second class citizens, many White doctors were taught and subscribed to the notion that Blacks required different treatments because they could tolerate more pain and had unpredictable reactions to medications. Therefore, White physicians were rarely careful or sensitive when treating Blacks.

James Marion Sims, widely recognized as the father of modern gynecology, came to prominence by performing shocking experiments on enslaved women while also forcing them to perform domestic duties and serve as nurses in his clinic. One of his patients was an 18-year-old named Lucy, who suffered incontinence after giving birth. During her procedure a few months later, Lucy was on her hands and knees, screaming in pain for an hour while a dozen doctors watched. Dr. Sims performed the same surgeries on White women, but with anesthesia.

The notion that Black people do not experience pain similar to White people still exists. A 2016 study by the University of Virginia revealed a significant number of White medical students and residents held false beliefs about the biological differences between Blacks and Whites, including that Blacks have thicker skin and do not feel pain as acutely. These notions show up in practice, even among children. A study of nearly one million children with appendicitis revealed that Black children were less likely than White children to receive pain medication for moderate and severe pain.

Another particularly egregious example of medical racism occurred in an operating room at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1968. A 54-year-old African American factory worker, Bruce Tucker, fell at work and hit his head. He was taken to the hospital unconscious. When the doctors rushed him to the operating room, they did not attempt to revive him. Instead, they harvested his heart and kidney for a white patient who needed them. No effort was ever made to contact Tucker’s relatives. It is still unclear today as to whether Tucker was actually brain dead, as the surgeons declared.

There are many accounts in history books, medical literature, and other periodicals about unethical and immoral medical procedures on Blacks due to racist attitudes and practices. The Tuskegee experiment is a well-known example. From 1932 to 1972, Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who had syphilis were recruited for a medical study to determine the course of the disease. The men were informed they had “bad blood” (at the time, the term encompassed several medical problems, including syphilis) and that they would receive free health care from the government. None were ever given antibiotics, despite the treatment being available. This horrific practice only came to light in a newspaper story.

So, here we are in 2021 amid a raging pandemic, where Blacks are dying disproportionately. A vaccine is available and a lot of media attention has been focused on the “vaccine hesitancy” of Blacks. It’s no wonder, considering our history. A cynical view would be that the attention paid to Black vaccine hesitancy is not because of an outpouring of sympathy for our COVID-19 death rate but because the U.S. won’t reach herd immunity without the participation of at least some Blacks getting the vaccination. America needs us but has a hard time admitting it.

Blacks have a lot to offer America. Indeed, look at the votes from the presidential election and the January runoff in Georgia. Black voter turnout is credited with changing the political tide of this country.

If a Black physician can’t get proper care in a hospital, what chance does any Black person have? Non-Blacks must recognize this disparity and speak up and speak out when seeing these racist practices. Non-Blacks should also take some time to study African American history, at least during this month, to discover how much Blacks have done and continue to do for this country. We believe, like any other American, that this is our home. We want to live a productive life and contribute to societal progress. But how long will it take for America to see that Blacks love this country even though this country seems not to love us?

Cynthia Nickerson
Media Advocacy Specialist

Cynthia Nickerson is a media advocacy specialist at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Looking to 2021 Through a New Lens

No one could have imagined 2020 would be such a challenging year for our nation. It has been a perfect storm. A once-in-a-century pandemic has exacted fatal tolls and collided with social unrest on a scale unseen in decades. Fault lines drawn long ago have burst at the seams, laying bare the inequality, injustice and rage underneath. However, as difficult as 2020 has been, it has brought opportunities to light that we must seize to repair the rifts in our divided society.

First, 2020 has elevated an understanding that systemic racism is pervasive. This realization came on like a freight train at a time when many Whites thought our country had moved beyond it. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery lit the tinder that brought thousands into the streets. As Americans marched for justice, many other harsh truths were dragged into the light, including police brutality, incarceration rates, childbirth mortality and COVID-19 deaths suffered disproportionately by Black and Latinx communities. While it has been painful to witness, race has dominated the national conversation and motivated tens of thousands to act, by way of protest and demonstration, demanding change. In turn, institutions have been forced to reflect on their role and what they can do to help repair centuries old injustices.

Second, 2020 has catalyzed the beginnings of meaningful police reform, a reimagining that has long been necessary. This year’s tragic events have inspired a renewed political will and a sweeping set of reform proposals. Better oversight and training, new crisis intervention protocols, federal data collection standards – even fundamental questions like what should be the mission of police officers – are all on the table. People with ideas from both ends of the political spectrum must find common ground. They are moving into 2021, trying to meet in an understanding that demanding an end to police brutality and valuing the role of law enforcement are not mutually exclusive.

Lastly, the intersection of a pandemic and massive social unrest has exposed the drastic societal inequities that exist in health, wealth and opportunity. Community trauma has emerged as a core public health concept. The understanding that substance use, mental health, illness, crime and poverty stem from adverse childhood experiences and baked-in inequities is now a guiding principle for public health funders and practitioners alike. This enlightened perspective brings forth the potential of directing money and resources to root causes. It facilitates new partnerships between social justice and public health advocates. These are big wins for the future of public health, with broad implications for successfully addressing our nation’s most intractable public health problems.

We are entering 2021 with a new lens. The new year brings with it the opportunity to harness the energy born out of this year’s struggle, with a renewed understanding of the link between public health, social justice, and economic opportunity. There is widespread agreement that this energy needs to translate into sweeping policy change. Like never before, we must attempt to lift up disaffected communities and implement crucial reforms that have for decades been neglected. The political will exists. Now let’s see what we can accomplish with it.

Brenda Simmons
CEO/President, IPS

Brenda Simmons is CEO/President of the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.