I know I have been dark and gloomy these past few days. My field has been dark for a long time. The crisis we find ourselves in isn’t new. We just lack the willpower to truly lead hence this darkness I feel for us. But today, I want to change course. Today, I actually want to use my platform to introduce light. We can act, we truly can do so as long as we gather as leaders to ignite and transform our field. That’s my hope anyways, that we will become the next generation truly taking action in word and deed, not in service only for our resumes but really for the public we serve. It will not be easy. They status quo will always prevail and rightfully so. They have over 120 years gap ahead of us so I don’t even expect to be in competition with them. This isn’t a race. But there is a sense of urgency that has been brewing for a long time and I want to be counted as those in generation public for the public’s health. I want to be counted as those in generation light for the public’s health.

I was inspired by the work of Paul Cornely, the first black President of the American Public Health Association. He was the first with so many other things too that I am so sad we don’t have a lot in his honor. This is my attempt to change that. I was inspired by an essay he wrote back in the 70’s about an ardor for change. It’s has taken over 50 years, but your enthusiasm for the field has been caught by a few of us and together we will work to bring light to the public’s health. Know too that all you suggested then about our society being sick, even the malady of racism is just as relevant as you are for today’s generation of light bringers for the public’s health. We all remain aware of the marked deterioration taken place in our society. We also know the irresponsibility and immorality of ignoring social issues too, social justice even or the right to health for all. And when we still evaluate all the field has done, it’s all remains little, 50 years later since your remark. And this pandemic has revealed openly the stark injustices that permeates our field to. The institutional racism you harped on 50 years ago, even among so called associations and experts, myself included, in service really to our curriculum vitae’s and not the public we purport to serve. So who remains in the business of the public’s health. No one, even in 2021 or in 2022. If I have been dark, it’s because our field has been left behind for so long that we could not even be called upon during the greatest and once in a lifetime pandemic that has killed over 850, 000 Americans and still counting. There are no great leaders in public health and not medicine, public health, leading the public at a time when the public desperately needs attention and care.

Dr. Paul Cornely

But now in moving this notion of light forward, in propelling light for public health, I penned the following verse inspired by Job (yea Bible Job). Our field can learn a thing or two about someone who lived through darkness. I hope you like it.

What if we sent light to places dark as death? What if we taught light to people that lacked insight? What if we gave light to those that wander confused and lost? What if we allowed light to flow to those who fall? What if we let light be the voice of the forgotten? What if we used light to direct the lives of all Gods’s creatures?

Then we might all become light. So long as we send light to the dark, teach light for insight, give light to the lost, allow light to flow, let light speak, and use light to direct lives and places as dark as even the forgotten public’s health.

In 1968, Dr. Morris Schaefer, a Professor and Head of Department of Public Health at UNC, Chapel Hill wrote a striking paper about the current issues in delivering better health services. He presented it at the 95th annual meeting of the American Public Health Association and many of what he shared then resonates with the state of public health today. In it he shared ‘how our incapacity to appreciate the character of the problems we face, may render us helpless when we encounter future challenges. Our field is not only confronted by new challenges, but also an increased urgency attached to old problems, new responsibilities, new functions, all at an increasingly rapid rates. Also with each
new challenge, comes the need to respond to continuing changes, all while maintaining the stability necessary for effective Public Health Service.’

If only our field heeded his advice in 1968. That and the idea that Public Health for better or worse is deeply enmeshed in political activity, despite the fact than antipolitical ideology persists. The handling of the pandemic is a glaring example of this. One section though that I choose to keep today is his focus on how ‘the past is still present.’ He was so thorough with the significance of the past and why we all need to have a reorientation in our attitudes about public health that it only makes sense to render it in verse for the present.

Without no further ado, read my keep below inspired totally by Dr. Schaefer entitled the ‘keep knowing that the past is present in public health:’

Public health faces a new day. While a hangover still remains.

Unsolved longstanding problems remain. Unfamiliar areas of services too.

Shortage of personnel remain. Solutions for the future too.

Conditions of uncertainty remain. Clamor for demands too.

Varied programs and goals remain. Complicated disciplines too.

Target populations remain unknown. The public we serve too.

Useful but limited textbooks remain. Old, standard associations too.

Struggles between agencies remain. Tensions across disciplines too.

Uneasy frontiers for public health remain. Uneasy boundaries between agencies and governments too.

Delusions of a old and well-propagated myth of the non-political character of public health remains. The persistence of the non politics myth too.

Lost opportunities remain. Lack of clarity of vision too.

Unsolved current problems still remain. An extension and intensification of past problems too.

Social problems significantly remain. The hands of the past on the future too.

Discerning local interests remain. Harmonizing initiatives too.

The need for imaginative and highly capable actions remain. Increased competency with information technology too.

Enormous strains on coordination remains. Responsibilities and resources too.

Long standing tensions among professional groups remain. Equal status of groups too.

The need for greater visibility with public health remains. Shortening lines of communications too.

Loss of potentially fruitful research remains. Duplicating research and services too.

Existing fragmentation of agencies remain. Business as usual too.

The urgency of problems affecting particular groups remain. Disruptive and limited responses too.

Struggles for allocations remain. Visibility and authorizations of those allocations too.

And so the continuing problems of the past remain. In the midst of new problems too.

Limited understanding of the persistence of these problems remain. So too our inability to solve them still (whether in 1968 or 2021).

Dr. Morris Schaefer address on current problems and issues with public health.

Go close to lions, even if afraid, at least you’ll be close to lions. Reach above the stars, even if you fall, at least you’ll land on stars. Run fast with wild deers. Even if you loose, at least you ran with deers. Fly high with eagles, even if you tire, at least you flew with eagles.

These are the life lessons i’m learning these days. A reminder to myself to always stay close to lions. Ooh yes that me, my early research days, being close to the king of the jungle himself.

Sometimes, it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways. I firmly believe this. To see the true manifestation of this word, also means you divorce yourself from the experiences and people who created or enabled those painful experiences to emerge in the first place. I wholeheartedly believe this. All the looking into why things happened or even why you let them happen is not the main crux of the issue. I am learning to believe this. Rather it takes a clear sense of you, to see yourself clearly in the situation. I am slowly believing this. Last year for me was full of pain on so many levels, both personally and professionally. Some of the pain were self-inflicted. I talk to much so I know that it can land me in trouble with people thinking I am belittling or undermining them. Far from it. My weakness remains a gift that can create pain. I am learning from this. Some of the pain lingers on, unable to fully detract myself or fully come to terms with why I feel like a black sheep in a room that once was inviting, celebratory even. To see how folks take their time to exclude you, take their time to remind you of how they even paved the way for you is unbecoming at times. It’s strange to see this all unfold too. But I wouldn’t even be writing this if it wasn’t meant for me to heal. I choose to believe this. Pain comes with rejection. I get that. It also comes with exclusion. I see that too. But most of all it comes with change. I am fully embracing this. It has taken me awhile to really say it to myself and out loud. But enough is enough. I choose me. I choose change. This one I believe. So if you don’t see me, if you don’t hear me, if you don’t even know me anymore. It’s not you. Sometimes it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways. I am changing my ways so that I be. This one is for me. Keep learning from painful experiences.

Something about a new school year keeps me hungry and restless to learn something new. A new strategy, a new framework, a new innovation, a new story. This school year, I am taking lessons from the master storyteller herself. Though she is gone, Toni Morrison’s many many literary treasures continues to teach and inspire and help me soar to new heights, new possibilities, new dreams. Today, I am dreaming of a time when schools began the tumultuous journey to integration. Many may take it for granted that black and white children can go to schools together today. But there was a time this wasn’t the case. Toni Morrison’s book ‘Remember’ is a historical work for young people, full of archival photographs that depicted what happened after the U.S Supreme Court declared segregation in schools unconstitutional.

Through a fictional account of the dialogue and emotions of students who lived through the era, Morrison reminds us all to remember because and as she noted, ‘it’s the mind’s first step towards understanding.’ And so we begin a journey towards remembering, towards a time where there was as much hate as there was love, as much anger as there was hope, as many heroes as cowards. This fictional account of ordinary people living ordinary lives takes us to new journey, new friendships, new kinds of fear, and old kinds of emotions. A wide road maybe ahead, but the path towards it was narrow, often closed, before we even see a path. This was also a time when children had to be braver than their parents, when pastors, priests and rabbis walked with strangers. It’s this time that I choose to remember. Not because of the difficulties of this period, but more so for the path that unfolded, the brave people, brave children that walked through them, through closed doors into possibilities that make today glimmer with hope. We cannot forget this time and I urge whoever you are reading this to keep remembering too.

I remember the day we met. I was summoned to a meeting at a faculty office by the Director of Health for Student Services. He was a close friend to my family. I say summoned because I tried to excuse myself from it. My excuses too were valid as I was on maternity leave. I just had my second child a month ago. I knew he meant well when he said it was for a student and she needed help. I arrived at his office promptly. Something about helping out a student in need keeps me standing always. Upon my arrival, I met the student and her uncle. They explained her situation and asked if I would take her on as a mentor for her masters degree. I felt I had no choice seeing that I was summoned and reluctantly said yes. I had no clue as well where to begin, as I would be on maternity leave while she navigated being a student. That was nearly seven years ago.

Today, that student, boarded a plane to begin her tenure-track career as an Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. Our relationship has now come full circle. We worked together extremely well in ways that make me even wonder how I would fare as she leaves. I remember the beginning days of writing with her. She has always been a writer but need a little bit of finesse. It took time, with revisions, and discussions, all from a place of wanting to bring out the best in her. She listened, revised, listened some more and wrote and wrote.

These days, all I do is give a sense of the topic, and she is off soaring. I don’t even have to discuss much, let alone revise. It’s perfect. That’s what I mean by full circle. That as mentors, those we guide, will do better than us, greater than us even, and beyond our wildest reach, our deepest depths. I have come across mentors who prefer you remain a mentee. Some are also willing to stifle your drive because you dared to thrive. Possibly without them too. Yet, they too forget, that the greatest gift they can give to those they guide is the circle. Once it’s complete, mentees should become ready to soar, even if they stumble along the way. Still rise on eagle’s wind and soar.

That’s my keep for you today. That as you start this new journey at Wake Forest, as you close one chapter of your life and open another, that as you complete this circle and begin another, that you will always rise like an eagle and soar to new heights. Reach to for what is highest within your capacity and quietly make your name known. You may be overlooked, even underestimated but the future belongs to those who dare fly. Fly Dr. Ucheoma Nwaozuru. It’s your future.

We have orange day lilies in our garden. My kids and I spotted them. Their beauty greets the eyes in an unexpected, but magnificent way. It is impossible to stop staring at them. Nothing about them is hidden from view. Their distinctive orange color, in a sea of green shrubs, bores down into your soul. They truly demand that you notice them. And you will, even if for a brief moment. Not even your eyes will deny their communion. Yet for all it’s beauty, for all its dazzling mist which permeates your being in slow bursts, these blooming orange day lilies lasts for a day. For some reason, I keep dreaming about ways we in public health can become like day lilies, even if for a day.

This is because we have been dragging our feet through concrete floors for too long. Making no sound as we walk. With footsteps followed only by us and not the public. Our beauty is hardly known by the public, by us even. Ahead, knowledge of how things should be with no change in style or substance. Not with our curriculums or courses. Not with our frameworks or theories. None of it speaks of multiple layers of racism and the daily realities that even the public demand that we do something about. Behind, a new generation of learners, listeners, activists, gazing out to the field. Wondering whether this is truly what they signed up for. As they draw nearer, they too look outward to the direction of our gaze. They too become aware of a sharp disconnect between the public and the public’s health. We have not dared to glance behind us even though we know they are near. The new generations and us are inseparably linked forever by what the public demands and what we do even if for a day. Each failure to advance who we are, what we do, or why we do it, is deadly for the public, inaction with racism and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, being a clear example.

I keep wondering, why public health keeps being left behind. We got left behind during the pandemic. Our messages on wearing masks or practicing social distance was viewed by some in the public with suspicion. For their own health too. Our messages on getting vaccinated whether old or young, was also viewed by some in the public with suspicion. Even still for their own health. Our papers do not reflect the realities of every day people, including the insidious impact of racism in all spheres of our influence. Nothing in our introductions, methods, results or discussions humanizes the public either. We have grown accustomed to presenting findings that serve us and not the public we serve. No sane person talks about their health the way we do.

But now, the pandemic and acknowledgement of the pervasive role of racism has wrenched the doors wide open demanding that we do something. Demanding that we walk, so our footsteps maybe felt by people, not institutions or open sources. Will we wave our hands in surrender to the public, or will we keep walking, with no sound, along concrete floors?I suppose time will tell. For now, dreams of daylilies will do.

In a 1989 conversation with Charles Rowell, Chinua Achebe shared a story about the goddess of creativity.

He described this as the earth goddess, called Ala or Ani by the Igbo people. Not only is she responsible for creativity, he mentioned that she is also responsible for morality.

For her, art cannot then be in service of destruction, in service of oppression, even in service of evil.

Art is simply not in service of immorality he mentioned. And morality he noted is not about being good or going to church. Rather it is manifestations such as with murder.

That is art, cannot be in the business of committing murder. It does not mean only angels or good things are portrayed. Rather things that humanize us are vividly illustrated.

For even hero’s are just as human as everybody else. No matter how fuzzy things may get, we still need to make a distinction between what is permissible and what is not permissible.

For example, he mentioned that it is not permissible to stereotype or dehumanize our fellows. Rather, we celebrate them, whether good or bad. We celebrate them whether rascals or not, for all of us abound in the world and are all part of its richness.

Achebe stated the following during interview: “We are engaged in a great mission, and we attempt to bring this into storytelling…People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives. They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.’

I wonder today if we can say they same about what we all do in public health? This is my keep today, my plea to return the public back to public health.

It is a serious matter and the public expect us the professionals to illustrate the fabric of their lives in ways that help them find a way out. So this is a serious matter. Put the public back into public health.

I am in the business of light making. It is messy, very complex with turns that keep winding.

When rich countries get 40-60 percent of Covid vaccines and others, especially countries in Africa, get only 3%, you will understand why I choose light.

When racism, especially structural racism is at the heart of why we consider some youth to be deficit rather than as asset, then you will get why I fight for light.

When people are denied deep sleep for centuries, due to trauma inflicted generations ago from the sins of enslavement, then you will understand why deep healing through light becomes the only way.

What would it be like to live in light, to live in a space where the pursuit of our healing is not defined by others but us.

Audre Lorde once noted that ‘our battle is to define survival in ways that are acceptable and nourishing to us, matching it with meaning, substance and style.’

This is my attempt at a doing so, by being a burst of light for public health.

Though the road ahead is rough, I remain committed to this business. It is forcing me to reach out to unlikely partners. The public demands that we do. The public also demands that we listen as we reflect and act on this long-overdue renaissance necessary for public health.

We are convinced that the only way forward is to intentionally put the public back in health. Not in a way that oppresses them or consider them to to be the problem only, but in ways that build, ways that uplift, with every single thing we publish.

I am in the business now of doing what Petteway and Bowleg asked that those of us committed to the public’s health should purse. Not with using the master’s language only, but with using and finding tools that serve the every day realities of all the people we want to serve.

The process is messy, complex too. But I am committed to dismantling the ways we disseminate information on health to the public.

Who needs impact factor when the factor we seek to impact is more important than words that never connect to daily realities.

I am in the business of distributing light instead, not as p values greater than .05, but as people values that allow people to thrive.

I keep wanting to run away from it, to ignore it, hoping that the itch would go away. But I am drawn to it.

To become one with light is bravery undefined, love unfiltered, for possibilities unquestionably misunderstood.

So I follow the paths it illuminates along this way for the course of being different. Everything in my mind says we are on the right course. This feels right too and if I’m not sharing much yet, know that the time has not come for me to unveil all that is happening behind the scenes. But in due time, we will tell the story. Of how brave folks fought for light, with all their might in-spite of the all the fear that held them in a grip so tight.

We pushed through.

For when you are in the business of light making, the only way forward is light making, no matter how long it takes to make the light you seek to inspire.

I am in the business of becoming that leader that will work to ignite the healing and transformation necessary for the public’s health. I don’t have an answer or solution yet. But I want to keep this here for me as a reminder to keep being in this messy, complex business of making light. We just may become the burst or pacemakers for this renaissance.

I usually write in the morning. It’s my best time for thinking. But the past few weeks my mornings have been preoccupied with work. I have been in grant writing mode since the start of March. It’s has been a painful and bittersweet journey to get back into. The last time I went on this journey was about a year ago and well, I failed. So to get back on it again is full of trepidation. But still I continue. When your mind is as chaotic as mind, grant writing can truly become an obsession. Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Beautiful Struggle noted how when he obsessed, he wanted only what he wanted and gave no attention to other matters. Grant writing is like that for me, a beautiful struggle that keeps me transfixed whenever I begin. Someone asked awhile back to a catalogue my grant writing process. How do I begin and how do I end?

Grantwriting is like a beautiful struggle!

For starters the beginning is full of doubts. I try to find any reason not to write a grant, not to put myself through the process, not to even think that I may have any idea and that the idea may indeed be valuable. In the beginning, I dread the grant writing process. But then slowly it’s like I am bitten by a bug. A grant bug. I look for the deadlines. If it’s 2-3 months away, then it’s potentially doable. But more doubts creep in. Who are co-conspirators? Is it worth bringing them along? What will they add? Why even bother? There are more doubts in the way of starting any grant journey. They key is to wrestle through it with different folks until the bug bite becomes an itch that simply won’t go away. The more you scratch, the more the ideas start to make sense until you plunge headfirst, into a grant writing abyss that takes you on an never ending journey towards many unknown. I am currently on that journey. They doubts are still intense but the people I keep meeting across this journey are the fuel I need. Take for example today. I was in a room full of black scholars. All seven of us have one degree or the other and we came in all shades of brown skin so divine, that it makes you want to join Beyonce and say just how beautiful we are when we come together for our people. I have no idea where this particular grant journey is taking me. I am also prepared to fail. That’s another part of my process that I share with every one I encounter from the beginning. We may fail but I would still rather go in this journey with you. It’s is a journey after all and like I always say, I am glad I have a plan. Surrounding myself with the right people, learning from them, adapting or changing the course of the grant where necessary all while nurturing that which makes us unique is the reason I absolutely love grant writing. I keep diving head first to as it’s it’s a journey from the head to the soul for me and with the right people, i am prepared to fail. But what if we are transformative. That then is the start of an endless journey, once that the destination is still unknown. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else (singing Brown Skin Girls)…