6th Annual Nyswander Week in the Health Science Department

by Kathleen Roe, Chair, Health Science Department

Dorothy Nyswander was the founder of the west coast approach to public health education.  Born in 1894, “Dorothy” as she is affectionately known, died many productive years later at the age of 104 in her home in Berkeley. Throughout her life, her work explored the principles of relevance, justice, and diversity, leading to a seminal paper in 1963 on “the open society” in which, she said, health is not an end in itself but a resource so that people are “free to mingle, think, and act”.  She described an open society as “a place where dissent is taken seriously as a sign of a vigorous democracy, diversity is expected and welcomed, justice is the same for everyone, and no one is left behind.”  She concluded with a call to public health professionals to remember that, although we must deal in evidence and often stark social disparities, “We are dreamers, and our dreams have to do with the basic purposes of an open society.”

Each year, the SJSU Health Science Department brings a guest to campus for two days of activities dedicated to the principles and commitments of an open society as imagined by Dorothy Nyswander over 50 years ago.

Our 2012 Nyswander Lecturer was David Hayes-Bautista, Professor of Medicine and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine.  Dr. Hayes-Bautista is an internationally recognized scholar and author.  His latest book, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Civil War Holiday, is due to be released later this spring.  Dr. Hayes-Bautista joined us February 23-24, 2012, as part of his national university speaking tour.

Master Class: How I Discovered the Latino Epidemiological Paradox

Our first event was a Master Class examining the ways in which Latino health outcome data are considered paradoxical because they do not follow the traditional risk factor model.  Central to public health statistical modeling, the risk factor model predicts that presence and strength of risk factors in a population, particularly lack of education, low income, and lack of access to health care is associated with worse health outcomes in that population, particularly heart disease, cancer, and infant mortality.  Although this model works for most populations, it does not predict Latino health outcomes. Indeed, the data show that Latinos have lower rates of heart disease, lower cancer rates, and healthier birth outcomes.  The question is why???   Part epidemiological presentation, part mystery, and part personal intellectual journey, Professor Hayes-Bautista took the 25 Master Class participants on a compelling and often surprising exploration of data, assumptions, and the courage needed to critically question “common knowledge” and highly vested theories.

Claudia Mendivil, MPH student, said that the Master Class was “enlightening and inspirational”.  She was particularly moved by the story Dr. Hayes-Bautista told about his own questioning of the media and political portrayal of Latinos compared to his own experiences, and the powerful ways in which those presentations impact public opinion and public policy.  She says she is “inspired and grateful to Dr. Hayes-Bautista for paving the way for other Latinos to participate in public health in such a powerful way.”  Sonia Gutierrez, another MPH student, expressed pride and appreciation for the data that suggest that Latinos’ better health outcomes are the result of underlying healthier habits, such as eating fresh food and deep family ties.  She agrees with his prediction that a growing Latino population in California may have a very positive impact on the health status of California. Expressing her pride in being Latina and part of this exciting time in public health, Sonia offers “thanks to Professor Hayes-Bautista for adding more fuel to my fire as I continue my work in the Latino community.”

The Nyswander Lecture: El Cinco de Mayo: An American Civil War Holiday

Our main event is the evening lecture, open to the public and a gift of the Health Science Department to the community.  The house was packed – an estimated 400 people – with every seat taken and everyone enthralled by the “real” story of El Cinco de Mayo.  Using meticulous historical research methods and stunning visuals, Dr. Hayes-Bautista brought to light a story that most of us had never known, including the “southern spur” of the Underground Railroad that brought fugitive slaves into Mexico where they were guaranteed freedom the minute they stepped onto Mexican soil- a right guaranteed in the Mexican constitution.

MPH alum Maritza Rodriguez explains “Growing up, I learned that Cinco de Mayo was a day to celebrate the defeat in Puebla [Mexico} but most importantly, to celebrate our Latino heritage.”  However, Dr. Hayes-Bautista’s historical research shows that El Cinco de Mayo is a celebration created by Latinos in California nearly 150 years ago to honor and recognize their significant and sustained contribution to efforts against slavery in the United States and oppressive monarchy in Mexico.  With the 150th anniversary of the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States coming up this year, Dr. Hayes-Bautista called on the group to join him in reframing this important day away from the “Drinko de Mayo”, corporate-sponsored holiday it has become and back to a joyous yet serious celebration of Mexican contributions to global citizenship and progressive values.  Respondents Gregorio Mora-Torres, faculty in the SJSU Mexican American Studies Department, and Maribel Martinez, Director of the SJSU Cesar Chavez Community Action Center, reflected on the importance of the historical perspective and called upon all of us to be the new California and, inspired by the Californios described in the lecture, to take an active role in shaping the future of our state, our country, and our university.

Carlos Cordero-Caballero, UCSC graduate now taking post-bac courses at SJSU in preparation for medical school, said “If there is one thing that I could take away from the lecture, it would be to question that data [and the common story]. Over and over, Dr. Hayes-Bautista demonstrated how populations have been misrepresented in data and history has left out important contributors.”  The real story of El Cinco de Mayo is inspiring and should be widely shared as an American Civil War holiday.

The Latino Leadership Breakfast

The final event was an informal breakfast, attended by nearly 30 student, alumni, and community leaders, and conducted in both English and Spanish.  Dr. Hayes-Bautista began by sharing his own story of what it meant to be a Chicano leader and the various generations of Latinos – and Latino leaders – that have shaped the history of our state.  Motivated and inspired by his presentation, Maritza Rodriguez noted, “Dr. Hayes-Bautista stressed that we second and third generation Latinos are privileged in many ways, but mostly by being US citizens with the right to vote.  As a second-generation Latino with a college degree, I have a responsibility to inform and help those who are voiceless and who do not have the same opportunities….”

I think I speak for all of us when I say “Thank you, Professor Hayes-Bautista, for an enlightening, exciting, and inspirational 24 hours at San José State University”!!!