Voices for the Silenced

An Emergency Forum at Mailman to Share and Grieve for Eric Garner and Ourselves

December 12, 2014

On Wednesday, December 10, the students of the Mailman School of Public Health held an open emergency forum to discuss their emotions, experiences, thoughts, and opinions resulting from the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who used the choke hold that resulted in Eric Garner’s death. It was a response to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and many cities across the United States. Below are some of the voices from the organizers of the event

What are the problems of public health, but equally as important, who are the ones framing these issues as legitimate problems? After the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, our community was weeping, angry, and in despair. We need to hear from the leadership of Mailman, a statement admonishing these continual failures of our justice system and to legitimize the ongoing problem of racial injustice. In partnership, we created the open forum to share our experiences and begin moving forward as a community. We executed what we came here to do as future public health leaders; people came and shared their most personal and honest experiences. I am optimistic that our institution will move forward having heard their students’ voices and will lead the field in addressing our commitment to social justice, the foundation to addressing our disparities to health.

–Megan Striplin, Population and Family Health ‘16

Before the push for a forum, it felt like these issues didn’t matter to the Mailman community. I experienced strong internal conflict trying to understand how I could spend my time studying and learning in an institution that seemingly didn’t care about the racial injustices that many black bodies, including myself, face everyday in the world. I think having a safe space for people to openly discuss their frustrations and grief was very powerful, especially in the presence of faculty and administrators. I hope that people recognized that their voices were heard and that there is a strong sense of urgency to keep this dialogue going. There is still a lot to be accomplished to address racial injustice, and I sincerely hope that we will all hold ourselves accountable to the actions and solutions that were voiced during the forum.

–Thana-Ashley Charles, Sociomedical Sciences ‘16

Public health communities are both powerful and responsible when it comes to racial and social justice issues and we must demand more from ourselves in every aspect of our reach: relationships, curriculum, research and policy. Wednesday’s Emergency Open Forum was an important first step forward in legitimizing and utilizing emotions and experience in the academic environment. I am heartened by a strong and united beginning of action at Mailman. I was honored to be present.

–Jill Humphrey, Population and Family Health ‘16

The atmosphere in the room on Wednesday was unlike anything I’ve felt—more than 300 people listening intensely while also allowing themselves to be vulnerable, two qualities that couldn’t be harder to find in academic spaces. It was so heavy, so real, and yet so open. It was electrifying. I urge everyone who was there to keep the fire going, to not allow the forum to become a one-time catharsis, but an ongoing struggle to keep ourselves in that headspace. We must find and make ways to turn paralyzing emotions like grief, rage, and sadness, into concrete plans of action. Especially at a school like Mailman, where we have been more historically privileged than most, it is singularly important that we create spaces for marginalized voices and directly confront the issues of racial injustice.

–Lorraine Fei, Sociomedical Sciences ‘16

The open forum was the start to something long overdue. Before the forum, I felt a sense of isolation at Mailman as a black body; seeing so many of my peers courageously go deep within themselves and speak the truths I’ve been feeling related to race, racism, and social injustices, not only brought about a new level of connectedness but started the process of healing. Outside these Mailman doors, there are so many more black bodies left vulnerable and isolated, as witnessed by the murders of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and so many more. It is our duty to correct those injustices within our public health community in order to better serve the community at large. It is important that all Columbia University Medical Center individuals continue to open themselves to uncomfortable spaces and ensure that this dialogue can continue beyond the forum. Collective action via a task force with the Dean, faculty, and Mailman students as well as workshops and seminars are not a panacea—but a great next step.

–Cheyanda Onuoha, Sociomedical Sciences ‘16

I personally spend a lot of time talking and I have always had the privilege of having a platform from which to speak. For myself, and, I would like to think, for many students at Mailman, the forum was an important place to start the exercise of listening first, then taking action.  Hearing from people who are experiencing injustice daily was a powerful testament to how much needs to change. It is hard to know where to start, which made the second half of the forum (in which people gave tangible and feasible suggestions for further action( so important. As one student said, “For the first time, we felt that change is possible at this campus.”

–Claire Eldred, Population and Family Health ‘16

The Emergency Open Forum revealed how intensely these issues are felt by our peers and by society at large. It became painfully clear to me that we’re still stuck on the wrong side of an epidemiological transition. When it comes to discussing current events in class, we are eager to address infectious disease epidemics, such as Ebola, but we only superficially acknowledge chronic endemics, such the insidious effects of racism and social inequities that were recently manifested by the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I am grateful for the engagement by and encouragement from Mailman faculty and administration to fight for those suffering from these injustices.

–Sharon Green, Sociomedical Sciences ’15

For a moment, imagine holding your breath, wanting to breathe but not allowing yourself to, and then finally exhaling. That feeling is the only way I can explain Wednesday’s Forum. I, and so many other students of color, allowed ourselves to stop suffocating in our truths. Wednesday, I felt held by the institution I chose to attend. We created a space where people could voice their trauma and pain, have it listened to and affirmed. We began collectively identifying solutions for us to heal. My black female body is inextricably linked to how I learn public health and carry that into the world. I am hopeful today, now that we have started a conversation that affirms both my identity and my vision, that we can find equitable health for all.

 –Brittany Brathwaite, Sociomedical Sciences ’16