Sep. 21 2020

Seminar Series Lifts Up Voices for Social Justice

For the second year running, the Department of Sociomedical Sciences and the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health are hosting a seminar series that features speakers active in struggles for social justice and health equity. This fall’s line-up in the Sophie & Alex Rosner Seminar on Health, History & Social Justice includes a progressive slate of labor leaders, elected officials, and activists.

Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, will give the season’s debut lecture on September 30, addressing the topic of organized labor, racial justice, and schools. The union has made national headlines in the past decade for two successful strikes in 2012 and 2019 that resulted in strengthened contracts for members and addressed broader equity issues outside of schools, such as housing assistance for economically precarious students.

Among other progressive voices to be featured in coming weeks are Cori Bush, a registered nurse and Black Lives Matter activist who in June upset a longstanding incumbent in a Democratic primary race in Missouri, and Abdul El-Sayed, a CNN political contributor who previously was candidate for governor of Michigan, director of the Detroit Health Department, and member of the Columbia Mailman faculty.

Other speakers include Josie Duffy Rice, an attorney and leading authority on racism in the criminal justice system, State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, and Ruha Benjamin, a Princeton sociologist active in debates on racial discrimination in algorithms.

“In public health, you can often get very downbeat studying inequalities and everything wrong in our society. We wanted to give examples of people who not only are pointing out things that are bad but also are actively engaging in ways that have already made a positive difference,” says Merlin Chowkwanyun, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences in the Center for History and Ethics of Public Health, who organizes the series. “We are also proud to have a speaker series that reflects the diversity of the public health workforce and the people it serves.”

The seminar series is named for Sophie and Alex Rosner, parents of David Rosner, Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and History. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the Rosners were active in the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and various other struggles for human rights and social justice.

“Their lives were dedicated to social justice for working people of all races,” says David Rosner. “They would be so proud that students are fighting for social justice and that their legacy is that a new generation will learn from the past and fight for justice in the future.”

Among last year’s speakers were sociologist Katherine Beckett, whose scholarship ended the death penalty in Washington state, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFL-CIO), public defender Tiffany Cabán, and New York State Senator Julia Salazar, whose talk touched on how she got involved in progressive politics at a young age.

After attending Salazar’s talk, student Karinna Carrillo stayed in touch with the State Senator who has mentored Carrillo as she aims for a future Congressional run. Carillo, who worked for New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi this summer, is now supported by Dare to Run, an organization that prepares young women to seek elected office. Among the policies she supports: occupational and housing rights, environmental justice, and (no surprise) universal healthcare.

“As a first-generation college student, running for office and entering politics in general can seem very convoluted; there is no clear path, and it's difficult to find mentors who come from similar backgrounds,” says Carrillo. “Dare to Run is giving me the space to learn who I will be as a candidate and how my ideas will best serve my future constituents.”


Social justice plays a large part in public health as the world around us can impact both our mental and physical health. To learn more, read about the launch of Columbia Mailman’s Global Health Justice and Governance program.