“You have to understand the community you serve.” New Haven’s director of public health, Maritza Bond, MPH, made this point during the two-part panel discussion series for the Yale health professional schools community, New Haven Voices, held on September 8 and 29. Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) Offices of Medical Education and of Diversity, Inclusion, Community Engagement, and Equity (DICE) co-hosted the series.
At the first session, Marietta Vázquez, MD, associate dean for medical student diversity; professor of pediatrics (general pediatrics and infectious diseases) said, “I have to start by noting that the motivation for organizing this series is the students’ strong interest in better understanding how they can most meaningfully contribute to the community in their role as health professional students, as well as residents of the city.”
Second-year MD-PhD student Kyle Gavulic— one of the student organizers for the series along with his medical school classmates Lamley Lawson, Roselyn Terrazos-Moreno, and Diane Zhao — expanded upon this idea. “As members of the YSM community—whether it be in our capacity as students, staff, or faculty—we are provided enormous opportunities to protect and support the health of the people around us. We are also called upon by leaders in our community and our peers to institute change and promote equity and inclusion.” To effectively do so, he explained, “we must first seek to understand, listen, and engage with members of the broader community in which we reside.” The student organizers hoped attendees would leave the panel events feeling empowered to become more involved in New Haven and more appreciative of how one becomes a structurally competent health care professional.
The Power of Collaborative Relationships
The first session, Understanding Where We Live, Work, and Play, focused on housing, jobs, and safety. Vázquez moderated a conversation among Melissa Mason, PhD (executive director, New Haven Works), Leslie Radcliff (New Haven community activist; chair, New Haven City Plan Commission; retired Yale employee of 27 years) and Stacy Spell (New Haven community activist; former project manager, Project Longevity-New Haven; retired New Haven Police Department detective).
Health care, education, and the environment were the focus of the second session, Growing and Becoming. Assistant Professor of Medicine (General Medicine) Lisa Puglisi, MD—who grew up in the New Haven area—provided introductory remarks. Cindy Crusto, PhD, professor of psychiatry and associate dean for gender equity, moderated a conversation among Bond, Karen DuBois-Walton, PhD (chairperson, State Board of Education; president of Elm City Communities; secretary, Housing Authority of the City of New Haven), and Bruni Pizarro, MESc (executive director, Junta).
While both sessions focused on the challenges facing many New Haven residents, Gavulic reflected on the common theme that stood out the most for him: “Community strength and wellness is the outcome of the thoughtful convening of a diversity of community membership when accompanied by an eagerness to listen and partner.” During the second session, Pizarro emphasized how New Haven’s small size allows for people and organizations to connect and collaborate. Pointing to her fellow panelists who oversee public housing and health in the city, she added, the scale “allows all of us to be in this room together.”
The Importance of Meaningful Engagement
A corollary of this theme woven through many of the speakers’ remarks was the importance of students engaging with the New Haven community, across its many neighborhoods, to learn from city residents and build close relationships.
Sharing her own story, Vazquez pointed to this idea: “I am a Puerto Rican doctor who has worked in New Haven for close to 30 years. I have gotten to know New Haven through my patients. This is a city with rich history, a city of natives, of immigrants, of brave hearts, a sanctuary city. It certainly has been a university to me, teaching me become the type of health care provider that I am today.”
Similarly, in the second session, Puglisi encouraged the students to get out in the community, as that will help them get closer to their patients, understand who they are, and better care for them. She also pointed to the great initiatives happening in New Haven and described her approach to add value by leveraging institutional resources to contribute to what is already being done. “Get out into the community after this lecture series. Meet people, go to community meetings, school board meetings, public health meetings. Get out there and meet real New Havenites who are doing really great community work every day. All of this will get you closer to your patients as well, closer to really understanding who they are.”
For Vázquez, the many positive outcomes from the sessions included the concrete suggestions the panelists provided for how health professional students can engage with the New Haven community, from Radcliffe’s recommendation to attend Community Management Team (CMT) meetings that take place in 12 neighborhoods across the city, to DuBois-Walton’s encouragement to engage with Growing Together CT, an advocacy group pushing for more housing choices and promotion of equitable revitalization of under-resourced communities statewide.
Attendees said the panels achieved the student organizers’ goals. Second-year MD student Siddhi Nadkarni, who like the student organizers believes students “have the responsibility to learn about the space we take up here and the issues that matter most to the people who live here,” found “New Haven Voices was a powerful start to that conversation.”
Similarly, Rachel Diaz, an MPH student at Yale School of Public Health, described the panel as “incredibly engaging, intimate, and honest about the ways Yale has contributed to New Haven’s social and economic health in positive and negative ways alike. There was so much gratitude and reverence among all panelists and organizers for each other and for this city, it was incredibly inspiring.”
Looking ahead, first-year MD student Morgan Brinker said, "I hope that the School of Medicine has this panel in the future as everyone—from those interested in community health and community-based research, to those who are simply curious about the city we now inhabit in one way or another—will learn from those who have had their boots on the ground for several decades."