A Conversation on Health & Poverty

Professor LaShawnDa Pittman
Professor LaShawnDa Pittman

On November 3rd, AES’s Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman brought her expertise to a panel on Health and Poverty hosted by the UW Honors Program. The event was moderated by Dr. Vicky Lawson, UW Honors Program Director, Relational Poverty Network Co-Founder, and UW professor of Geography. Other distinguished faculty on the panel included Dr. Steve Gloyd, a professor in Global Health and an advocate for Healthcare Equity, and Dr. Chandan Reddy, an associate professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and a specialist in English Migration Studies. As an urban poverty ethnographer, Dr. Pittman was able to bring her own nuanced perspective to the issue.

The University Honors Program hosted the event as the first part of a series that takes up global challenges and provides interdisciplinary approaches to considering and solving these problems.  The panel provided respected UW scholars with an opportunity to show students how health and poverty are interrelated issues. Both the organizers of the event and those of us who attended the event were thrilled to see an impressive turnout of more than 600 attendees who together created a standing room only atmosphere and demonstrated the interest UW undergraduate students share regarding faculty perspectives on the pressing issue of health and poverty. Because the organizers of the event smartly decided to have the panel of experts participate in a conversation rather than present individually as members of a formal panel, the kind of talk that emerged was strikingly personal, moving, humorous, informative, and very engaging. To top it off, the quality of the questions several members of the audience asked after the session ended signaled just how committed members of the UW community are to the kinds of social justice issues members of the panel addressed.

Pittman initiated the conversation by sharing her personal story about growing up in poverty in the Chicago area and describing how she managed to sustain a commitment to the intellectual curiosity that over time drove her to academia. In the process, she addressed the challenges faced by young people of color from low-income backgrounds, and particularly touched on the specific and unique situations of those being raised by grandparents—a particular focus of Pittman’s scholarly research. Pittman was able to speak particularly to the experiences of young students from these backgrounds and the unique issues they face. As a scholar focusing on the complex intersections of public policy, health disparities, and race, Pittman was also able to offer a nuanced reading of how we as members of the university community can best address these intersections as we look for ways to improve the lives of those that our society has left by the wayside.

Interestingly, Pittman also turned out to be the last member of the panel to speak when Lawson invited the panelists to offer suggestions about how members of the audience could best effect change in our society. Speaking from the heart, Pittman urged everyone in the audience, but especially the first and second year students who are still finding their way, to boldly engage with the world and fearlessly speak up on behalf of anyone whose voice may have been silenced. As her final words reverberated throughout the ballroom, the audience rose to its feet and gave Pittman and her distinguished colleagues a raucous standing ovation that demonstrated just how much they had appreciated listening to a readily accessible conversation between scholars who know their material and are committed to making a difference in the lives of people in poverty who have limited access to health care.

Asked how the experience had affected her perspective on the role young people can play in changing a world desperately in need of proactive intervention, Pittman said: “I have a friend who like me is a scholar, but whose research is related to urban community gardening. When she and I forget why we make the sacrifices we do, to do the work that we do, we remind each other. She chides, ‘I do this work because no child should have to walk to the school bus in the morning eating a bag of Cheetos for breakfast.’ And I declare, ‘I do this work because no grandmother raising her grandchild should have to rise before the crack of dawn and carry her 4-year-old grandson on her shoulders to the bus stop, take a bus to drop him off at daycare and another to her job, and still not be able to make ends meet.’ So, I say to young people—find what gets you out of bed in the morning. Find your passion, your purpose, even if those around you don’t like it and don’t get it. Even if it takes you in a different direction than the one you’re on. That is what sustains a movement and social change.”

AES applauds Pittman's contributions to the conversation that evening and looks forward with great anticipation to the many contributions she will make through her scholarship and her fierce commitment to social justice.

Read more about the Honors event:

 Event Website