Students work for health justice

With a groundbreaking report released last week, the Global Health Justice Partnership is becoming a powerful tool to help graduate students go beyond the ivory tower.

The Global Health Justice Partnership — a joint initiative by the Yale Law School and School of Public Health — started out in 2012 as a small clinic, offered as a class for graduate students. But the program proved so popular that students wanted to stay involved, and the partnership has since expanded to allow a greater number of students to participate.

Last year, the students in the clinic traveled to South Africa to compile a report on mine workers suffering from lung disease. Released Jan. 13, the report — which calls for South Africa to reform its compensation system for these miners — has already received considerable press attention in the target country, according to YLS professor Gregg Gonsalves, one of the co-directors and founders of the partnership.

Gonsalves said the partnership was born out of a desire to investigate and act upon issues that are related to both law and public health.

“A lot of the health problems, both in the US and abroad, are deeply entrenched with law and government,” he said. “In the real world, the divides between law and public health don’t exist.”

In order to engage with public health issues, Gonsalves said, students need to start working in an interdisciplinary manner. They need to straddle not only academic disciplines, but also “academic worlds” such as as communities of intellectuals, policy groups and state actors, he said.

The partnership operates through both the clinic — a small seminar that is split into groups that tackle different issues — and a larger fellowship program, Gonsalves said. He added that while the clinic students are engaged in more intensive, hands-on work, the fellows form a wider “academic community” and organize periodic lectures, panels and research projects.

Ryan Boyko GRD ’18, one of the clinic students who went to South Africa last year to compile the recently published report, said he joined the partnership because he wanted to collaborate with people working on the ground, such as nongovernmental organizations and government officials. He added that he has not had such an opportunity as a PhD student before.

Rose Goldberg LAW ’15 said she chose to become involved with the partnership because of its hands-on approach.

“Participants are not handed case files or standard operating procedures,” she said. “They are presented with live, unwieldy problems that implicate multiple legal systems, sectors and clients.”

Alice Miller, a YLS professor and a co-director of the partnership, said students’ interactions with people affected by these issues, as well as the interdisciplinary analytical framework students use, make their work innovative. Students have the potential to make a real impact on the issues they are investigating, she added.

One of the great challenges of direct involvement, however, is maintaining the neutral stance of a researcher, Boyko said.

“What is most difficult is writing a report from a detached academic perspective when you are clearly, to some extent, advocating for one of the sides,” he said.

Ikenna Achilihu MPH ’15, a Yale School of Public Health student who is enrolled in the clinic this semester, echoed Boyko, adding that he has had trouble balancing the roles of volunteer and observer in the past.

Still, Achilihu said the clinic will provide him and the other students with substantive training and expertise in global health issues before they venture out to do field work. This field work will allow them to produce useful research, he said.

Currently, the partnership is working on a project about the United Nations’ involvement in bringing strains of cholera to Haiti.

Miller said that this semester, students will also start new investigations on HIV criminalization and prostitution laws in the United States, as well as on pharmaceutical companies and the legitimacy of advertising off-label products.

But Gonsalves said the future plans of the partnership go beyond what is going to be done in class and extend through the lives of students who leave the clinic.

“My greatest dream is that students will feel inspired by the class and want to take it on as their life’s work,” he said.

Mine workers in South Africa have one of the highest rates of occupational lung disease worldwide.

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