Six Months at the de Beaumont Foundation

A year ago, I was starting my final semester of my MPH coursework, writing my master’s thesis, interning at the CDC, and applying to post-grad positions. Again and again, I answered the question: “Describe your interests, strengths, and qualifications for this position, and how it will benefit your long-term career plans.”

My biggest obstacle was always the word limit — because I want to do it all: to address social determinants of health; to improve health equity; to conduct, communicate, and translate research into action in the form of policy. That’s a tall order for a career in public health, and a near-impossible expectation for a year-long fellowship. But in the past six months at the de Beaumont Foundation as the ASPPH Philanthropy Fellow, I’ve been able to work on projects related to all of the above:

  • Addressing social determinants, translating research: With the BUILD Health Challenge, I’ve learned about how decisions are made about a national program that brings together partners from healthcare/hospital systems, public health departments, and nonprofit community organizations to address social determinants of health. I’ve also been engaged in communicating the research on, and evaluation of, these cross-sector collaborations.
  • Targeting health equity, conducting research: Collaborating with coauthors from around the country, I crafted research studies based on data from the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS). The questions we’re addressing with this work target issues of equity and diversity in the public health workforce. Because of my training and interest in environmental health, I’m also working on a project characterizing the environmental health workforce.
  • Research to policy: In preparations for the launch of CityHealth, I’ve learned about the process for using and communicating research to generate political will around policies that impact public health.
  • Action-oriented research: Through partnerships with the Public Health Foundation and National Network of Public Health Institutes, I’ve participated in a project developing evaluation of the public health courses offered through the TrainingFinder Real-time Affiliate Integrated Network (TRAIN).
  • Communicating: I’ve participated in health-related conversations at local, regional, and national levels. Through attending meetings and events hosted by the American Public Health Association, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, Grantmakers In Health, The Atlantic, the National Center for Healthy Housing, Kaiser Permanente, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, I’ve realized that while the conversation may take a different form, shape, or tone depending on who is in the room, there is broad support for, and innovative work on, improving population health, eliminating health disparities, and addressing social determinants of health.

Through these experiences, my perspective of the field and role of public health has changed. Beyond developing my research and communication skills, this fellowship experience is revealing the big-picture “why” and “how” of public health work. I’ll continue to ask these questions not only for the duration of my fellowship, but throughout my career:

  • How can we articulate the value of public health across and with other sectors?
  • How can we best conduct research that leads to action? Is our research question actionable, and have we partnered with those who have the authority to take action?
  • When critically reflecting on the field of public health, what role can we play in being part of the solution?

During my MPH program, I proudly rooted my academic identity in my departmental affiliation with environmental health. While I’m passionate about environmental issues, the career I seek necessitates crossing disciplinary boundaries, a broad view of the field of public health, and viewing issues through multiple perspectives. By embracing this transitional stage of my career, I am more prepared to be a part of our field’s shift into “Public Health 3.0” which “emphasizes cross-sector collaboration and environmental, policy, and systems-level actions that directly affect the social determinants of health.”

I don’t want the work I do to be inaccessible within a silo, nor can I claim to work across and between silos before having a clearer understanding how the whole farm operates. This experience has given me a bird’s eye view, along with invaluable insight into how leaders prioritize the challenges and opportunities we face as a field – as well as the motivation to continue to develop as an advocate for public health.

Interested in becoming the next ASPPH Philanthropy Fellow at the de Beaumont Foundation? ASPPH is now accepting applications. Apply by March 24, 2017

Elsewhere: Protecting Public Health Evidence in an Adversarial Environment

de Beaumont Foundation President & CEO, Ed Hunter, discusses the red flags we should watch for, the safeguards in place, and what public health leaders can do now to protect public health through tumultuous transitions. Read Protecting Public Health Evidence in an Adversarial Environment on Medium here.

Elsewhere: Beyond Healthcare: Making America Healthy Again

Chief Program & Strategy Officer, Brian Castrucci, explains why fighting chronic disease requires a strong public health system – and lots of partners – in his latest blog. To read Beyond Healthcare: Making America Healthy Again on Huffington Post, click here.

The documentary as a teaching tool

Engagement is the key to effective instruction.

A direct path to engagement is simply to tell a good story.

Documentary film, done well, can engage and instruct through storytelling. Consider Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Presented to the Public Broadcasting Service audience as a niche product – a miniseries exploring at length an era most people may have had their fill of in grade school – the film surprised Burns and PBS when it became a national phenomenon.

The Civil War also found its way into the classroom. Used as a means to engage students in the topic, it provides a jumping-off point for discussion, interpretation, and further study. Burns says, in his introduction to the PBS site devoted to educational use of the film, “The series can’t replace the teacher or the classroom, but in conjunction with what you as the teacher do, it can make the era come alive in a way never before possible. In many ways, the series asks as many questions as it answers and should serve as a starting point for active learning and classroom discussion.”

Even when excellent course materials are available, the addition of documentary film to teaching brings a number of enhancements.

  • Flexibility for the instructor: A course will be structured in specific ways, and generally must be presented in its entirety and in sequence. A film can be viewed at any time and excerpted as needed.
  • Lower cognitive load for the learner: Viewing a film demands less of the audience than reading text or clicking through a course. The learner follows along with the story without conscious effort.
  • Easy sell: “Watch this” (at home, in class, on a phone) is an easy task to assign and to complete. Much easier than “read pages 148-207” or “complete Module 5.”
  • Potentially high engagement: Despite the apparent passivity of watching, visual media can lead to greater engagement with the material, which leads to high retention. Ask yourself how many good movie scenes you can recall? Now–how many good textbook passages?

In an instructional context, these factors – especially the combination of an easy sell and a high level of engagement – are very valuable.

But a film can’t stand alone as an instructional method. As noted above, watching the documentary should only be part of the process. Discussion questions and related readings need to be included in the mix to prompt reflection and to illustrate the topic more completely.

The de Beaumont Foundation’s film Public Health and Politics: Examining the Surgeon General is seeing similar application. The short documentary explores the interplay of politics with the Office of the Surgeon General throughout the Surgeon General’s history. It is built around interviews with public health officials relating the challenges of balancing science and politics through a focus on the July, 2007 Congressional hearing on improving the effectiveness of government. Since making the film available online and presenting it at screenings and film festivals, we’ve spoken with educators who have shared their ideas for using it in public health policy, ethics, and law classes.

The film was developed alongside our free learning course of the same name. We designed the course using archival footage and interviews coupled with selected readings and discussion questions – not dissimilar to the lesson plans and learning activities you can find at the PBS Civil War site and other resource links below. The film can serve as an introduction to the complex relationship between politics and public health, and as a supplement to our course and others.

Let me offer one word of caution. Take the same care when selecting a film for your classroom that you would when assigning a book. Be aware that documentary films can be made to promote a specific viewpoint, sometimes to the detriment of accuracy. While this can raise questions about the appropriateness of using a particular film in the classroom, a documentary that takes sides – even a propaganda piece – can still be of value. In these cases, watching the film and then examining the history and context behind it can provide valuable insight on the issues the film addresses. An instructor might ask students to compare the film’s position with opposing views held by other sources – and with their own.

In other instances, using Public Health and Politics as an example, the documentary may present varying positions on an issue. This is an opportunity for students to work with the complexity of the topic. A discussion can be prompted by asking students to explain where the individuals presented have differing views and where they agree.

The best films, especially for training and education, are the ones that carry us along with them to new places, the ones that have us see things with new eyes, and – without our even realizing it – the ones that enable us to think about things in new ways.

Interested in using documentaries as teaching tools?

Lesson plans, sample discussion questions, and other resources are available at the following links:

  • PBS provides clips, lesson plans, and learning activities using Ken Burns’ The Civil War: The Civil War in the Classroom.
  • PBS’s POV has free resources for educators, including online film clips connected to discussion questions and lesson plans.
  • Jessie Daniels, PhD (Hunter College and The Graduate Center – CUNY) has set up a wiki of films and resources for her Teaching Sociology through Documentary project.
  • Dr. Daniels discusses her approach to using film and other media in her courses at CUNY: Teaching and Learning with Documentaries.
  • The New York Times Learning Network Film Club offers short NYT documentaries with related discussion questions.
  • Teach With Movies offers two film study worksheets designed to help K-12 teachers quickly create lesson plans based on documentary films; one is for movies that are primarily informational and the other for films designed to persuade the viewer on a matter of political or social significance.