Boingboing blogs from… New Orleans

Community partners at the Journey to Justice Conference, 11-14 May 2016, New Orleans, Louisiana

by Lisa Williams, Boingboinger

After many years of hanging around with academics I have learnt that community partners is code in the international university world for ‘organisations and people who are NOT quite as important as us’. In my head I have often added my own secret addition… ‘but are actually doing real things with real people’. This is why I like working with the Boingboing community and CUPP – because they make it their mission to translate research into practice. They really try to make what the boffins find out useful to ‘non academics’ like me – otherwise known as community partners.

So after over 20 years of being community partners with Professor Angie Hart, my longstanding collaborator, co-developer and old matey, it was fantastic to find myself finally accompanying her at one of those conferences abroad which academics routinely go to (Angie will be shouting ‘I have to go for my job!’ at her computer screen right now). We flew off to New Orleans in May this year (yes, I said NEW ORLEANS) to attend four days of intense workshops and non-stop networking and of course eating. The conference was called Journey to Justice – Creating Change Through Partnerships 2016, hosted by the Community-Campus Partnership for Health.

New Orleans is an amazing city. Full of life and colour and clapper board houses which I adore with their verandas of swings and flowers. Angie and I cycled around in the heat gawping at said houses whilst discussing our imminent presentation about the Imagine Programme and the Academic Resilience Approach (ARA) which we developed as part of the community-university partnership work. I was representing YoungMinds, the UK’s leading national charity for children and young people’s mental health.

The conference was around the theme of collaboration between universities and community partners for social justice – extremely relevant to the mental health field of course and in a way exactly what our own partnership is about. Mental illness and inequalities go hand in hand of course.

Human sculptures workshop

The most inspiring speaker was Dr Beverly Wright, Executive Director, Deep South Centre for Environmental Justice, Dillard University, a vibrant woman in a glorious red dress telling us about their campaign for justice for the people living on the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor. Her passionate speech about the impact of industries dumping chemicals in the river on the health outcomes of those poor neighbourhoods was incredibly moving. She convinced us of the power of research findings without which their campaign had been based on stories of cancer, but with little hard evidence in terms of data, health trends etc, which eventually proved the impact and has led to legislation. Together the campaign was stronger. Hurrah! I ate another doughnut to celebrate.

The inequalities in the US are mind-boggling. One guy told us about the difference in the average life expectancy between two neighbouring areas in Seattle – 27 years! I spluttered my coffee and burst out in the workshop ‘what?!!’ – explaining that in the UK the greatest difference is around 10 years (e.g. between a borough in Newcastle and one in Hampshire). The presenter then said ‘by the way, my condolences to you on the privatisation of your health service in England – this is what makes it so difficult for us to get funding for public health here, no-one wants to pay for prevention’. This depressed me even more. I ate two doughnuts in the break.

So whist there were snippets of inspiration, all in all I learnt that the health system in the US is in a far worse state than ours in terms of public health. Nobody wants to fund much about prevention, however research can help build the case for legislation to make it happen. The US health system lacks incentives to keep the cost of poor health down by preventing it in the first place and lacks incentives to share good practice when everyone is competing for a contract! I felt sad to go all that way to realise how far we have come in addressing inequalities through public health programmes in England and yet the NHS changes and the cuts to council funding are driving us backwards.

On our last day, my esteemed academic partner and I could only seek comfort in a bar stool and Jazz – but boy what comfort it was… another inspiring woman, trumpeting and singing in a colourful city in a crazy country which I hope remains, in health at least, somewhat different to home.