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Youth Health and Racism in Focus For Students


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For 35 years, a gathering organized by the school of public health at UNC has been focusing on the health of minority populations.

By Hyun Namkoong

The lobby of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center was teeming on Friday with people diverse in age, occupation and race for the 35th annual Minority Health Conference, organized by the UNC Minority Student Caucus.

Brian Evans, 9th grader at Southeast Raleigh and Connie Griffin Hughes, volunteer with Community Health Coalition.

Brian Evans, a ninth-grader at Southeast Raleigh gets his blood pressure checked by Connie Griffin Hughes, a volunteer with the Community Health Coalition. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

This year’s theme was “Innovative Approaches to Youth Health: Engaging Youth in Creating Healthy Communities,” with breakout sessions focused on a wide range of youth health topics, including global youth engagement, adolescent development and youth-led advocacy.

“Focusing on [youth’s] needs and insights is one of the most powerful ways we can work together to make the world a better place,” said Kari Thatcher, one of the many student volunteers who organized the event.

The conference brought together organizations from around the state that work on youth-health issues. Researchers presented posters on a wide range of topics – for example, the prevalence of asthma-related symptoms in children living near concentrated animal-feeding operations and the condom preferences of young blacks.

Attendees wandered through the lobby which also had tables for organizations such as the American Heart Association and the Peace Corps.

Christa Riggins, a sixth-grader at Moore Square Middle in Raleigh, missed school to attend the conference.

“The conference is educational,” she said. “It’s fun.”

Structural racism and youth health

Gail Christopher from the W.K. Kellog Foundation set the tone for the day with a message titled ‘Place Matters to the Health of Our Nation’s Youth,’ which encompassed several themes, including structural racism and racial equity.

Structural racism refers to policies and practices that reinforce and perpetuate racial inequities in different facets of life, including work, health and education. One example of the phenomenon, Christopher said, is data showing higher rates of home foreclosure in minority communities, even when other factors are taken into account.

She had been at the White House the previous evening, where President Obama announced a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper.” The effort is a collaborative partnership between foundations including the W.K. Kellog Foundation, community groups and corporations to address problems that have affected the lives of young black men in the country.

Christopher talked to the crowd about racism and presented theories of how to address it. One theory proposes that people don’t change their racist views until they’re exposed to real-world events and can reason through the unfairness they see.

Gail Christopher from the W.K. Kellog Foundation gave some of the discouraging statistics on the social and health status of racial minorities in the U.S. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Gail Christopher from the W.K. Kellog Foundation gave some of the discouraging statistics on the social and health status of racial minorities in the U.S. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Christopher highlighted the Trayvon Martin case and the “inexplicable verdict of Zimmerman” as a real-world event that has brought the issue of racism and discrimination back into the conversation of challenges that young people of color face today in America.

“What moves people to action is emotion,” she said

Christopher reiterated the importance of youth and the role they played in the Civil Rights era and urged them to realize what their role can be in fighting for social justice today.

“Youth are at the forefront of change and social justice,” she said, “Youth have amazing technology, you can mobilize people, there are many resources.”

“People tend to stay away from the ‘R’ word,” said Maggie Davenport, an epidemiologist from Cincinnati, referring to racism. “We need to be able to use it again.”

Hard-to-reach youth

Identifying hard-to-reach youth, addressing their challenges and finding solutions was the topic of a breakout session led by Danielle Butler, director of crisis and homeless services for Haven House Services, a Raleigh-based organization that provides a place of refuge and other services for young people in difficult circumstances.

“Runaway homeless youth are one of the hardest populations to reach,” she said.

“What people might view as crimes, runaway homeless youth call ‘survival on the streets,’” Butler said. “Squatting is finding a place to lay their head down; larceny is getting something to eat.”

She pointed out the adverse health outcomes these young people regularly face, including unwanted pregnancies, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The William and Ida Friday Center at UNC-Chapel Hill was packed for the 35th annual Minority Health Conference last week.

The William and Ida Friday Center at UNC-Chapel Hill was packed to capacity for the 35th annual Minority Health Conference last week. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Though because of their mobility an accurate number of runaway youth is difficult to estimate, experts believe that more than a million young people aged 12 to 17 ran away from home in the past year.

Day shelters, emergency shelters and transition and rapid re-housing services all need to be available for runaway youth, Butler said.

Rapid Re-Housing provides short-term assistance to secure stable housing and was introduced by the Obama Administration in 2009 in the aftermath of the home foreclosure crisis. Butler credited the program with preventing the homeless population from skyrocketing during the recession.

Issues facing young people in general need to be given a higher priority in our society, she argued.

Youth in action

The need for young people to participate in the dialogue on how to improve their health outcomes was underscored throughout the conference.

Young attendees spoke of how they felt the information provided at the conference could guide their future work in public health.

Sidney Graves, a master’s in public health student at ECU, said the conference reminded her to be “persistent in our efforts in rural eastern North Carolina” in addressing health inequities.

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