Achieve social justice in Iowa City

BY EMILY INMAN | AUGUST 26, 2011 7:20 AM

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As Dr. Paul Farmer walked up to the podium, roaring cheers abounded throughout the IMU Main Lounge on Wednesday night. They lasted for what felt like nearly ten minutes.

"Take that, Mitt Romney," Dr. Paul Farmer exclaimed. Farmer stood in front of a crowd of roughly 1,200 people. He was the first lecturer this semester in the University of Iowa's annual Lecture Committee series.

Farmer is a medical anthropologist, physician, global-health advocate, and global humanitarian who has worked in Haiti to serve the health and social welfare needs of Haitians for 20 years before the devastating earthquake took place on Jan. 12, 2010. As a cofounder of Partners in Health, Farmer helped establish clinics and housing in Haiti, treat AIDS and tuberculosis patients, and create a foundation for the future of health and welfare reform in Haiti.

His lecture was titled "Haiti: An Unnatural Disaster." Large groups of people waited in line almost an hour and a half before he was scheduled to speak. I overheard a few graduate students behind me who were recalling their first encounters with Farmer's work. One student said her high-school teacher gave her a book by him written in 1992 and that the book forever changed her outlook on medicine. She went from wanting to become a doctor for the prestige and monetary gain to wanting to become a doctor in order to help save lives and provide assistance to those wronged by social inequities.

Undergraduates, graduates, Ph.D. students, medical workers, and other community members all stood in line eagerly awaiting the magnificent speech that was about to commence by the prestigious, yet humble, social-welfare advocate.

In introducing Farmer, the master of ceremonies read a recent statement by former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach regarding Farmer. "He is one of the leading humanitarians of our era," Leach wrote.
Farmer's speech lived up to his reputation as a social justifier.

The January 2010 earthquake destroyed nearly all the medical and housing infrastructure that Partners in Health had helped to create. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were either killed or left homeless. During the heartbreaking months following the earthquake, a deadly outbreak of cholera spread throughout Haiti. It was an unfathomable disaster. Farmer and his team, along with hundreds of volunteers who came from various countries to help, reacted quickly to combat the dangerous disease, while at the same time working tirelessly to rebuild Haiti.

Farmer not only lectured on his work in Haiti before and after the earthquake but also on the principles and goals of global health. When discussing the goals of global health, many believe that the word "global," for some reason, excludes the United States. However, the United States is, indeed, a part of the globe, and it is a recipient of missions to which global-health advocates serve.

Farmer said, "Global health doesn't mean international health; it means health for all people." He went on to explain that people at the UI, including undergraduates, play a key role in carrying out the objectives of global-health projects. By bringing resources together from medical professionals to global-health scholars to lawyers to volunteers who pass out fliers, we are bringing resources together in order to combat, contemplate, and ultimately solve health disparities, Farmer said. We are in a position to become involved in helping to solve the great problems of our time, he said.

His speech was inspirational to those who might think they are only one person or that a problem like solving hunger in Iowa City is too ambitious. "Every health problem that affects poor people is dismissed as 'too complicated,' " he said. What the real problem is, he explained, is a lack of imagination among affluent people.

There is always a way to band together to solve problems or issues. After the earthquake destroyed the state hospital in Port-au-Prince, Farmer, colleagues, and volunteers didn't give up. They said of the cleanup and rebuilding: "This will be done."

Here in Iowa City, we need to have that same mentality. The social inequities that plague our town, such as lack of access to better housing and transportation on the Southeast Side, or ill beliefs and rejection of people moving into town from urban areas can be eradicated and dispelled. Students and community members can come together in order to achieve social justice in Iowa City.

It can be done.

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