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Woman speaking at convocation ceremony wearing cap and gown

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

minute read

Melissa Rivera, MPH student at ColoradoSPH at UNC, was selected as the student speaker for the May 2019 ColoradoSPH Convocation. She spoke on the joy of public health work and saying goodbye to health inequality. 

Good afternoon! Welcome to the 2019 Colorado School of Public Health Convocation!

Thank you to our guests for attending today; you have played an instrumental role in our education. This also goes for the faculty at the Colorado School of Public Health; we are inspired and motivated by the work you do, and so grateful for your guidance. And congratulations to my fellow graduates! Our work has taken months, or even years to complete, but WE DID IT!!!

I began the MPH program in 2015, which was the same time I started a family. Two kids later, I can say that balancing work, parenting, and school was a little bit hectic at times, so thank you to my family for your endless support.

Back in 2013, before I had ever heard of public health, I began working in Fort Collins at a Title I elementary school which has a 90% poverty rate and a 30% homelessness rate, and while I was told these kids would need some extra support, I didn’t really know what that meant.

Shortly after starting, I began to hear daily stories of homelessness, abuse, and poverty. These stories were not the exception, they were the rule, and I was exposed to a lived experience vastly different from my own. But the more time I spent at the school, the more the families became my family, their children became my children.

Families could not afford food or diapers. And they often had to choose between staying home with their sick child and keeping their job, because you need a doctor’s note to get an excused absence, and when you have Medicaid, it is nearly impossible to get your child in for an appointment. For some of my students, I wrote a new bus pass every day, because “home” was a different place every night. Out of necessity, I learned the addresses of the shelters, motels, and missions, memorizing the times and routes of bus stops. And I experienced my own privilege when I witnessed a parent explain to her son why she couldn’t protect him from an escalating political climate. As an undocumented immigrant she can’t vote, but worse, she feels fearful and disenfranchised in her own community. It was apparent to me that the trauma created by poverty was harming my students and families.

The following year my grandfather and I had a deep conversation about the work I was doing. When he passed away a few days later, I took it to heart that his final advice to me was to pursue this degree. So I applied to the MPH Certificate program, and then later the full MPH program at UNC, hopeful that I would gain the tools I needed.

I had never heard of public health until this conversation with my grandfather, and students and faculty alike are frequently asked, ‘what is public health?’ So after almost four years of immersing myself in the work, here is what public health is to me.

Public health is the air you breathe, the food you eat, the water you drink and the environment in which you live. It is everything that touches your life, keeps you whole, and moves you forward. It determines your longevity, and it defines your capability. It is the unspoken joy found in our homes and in our communities.

And joy has been a popular topic this year. If you spend any time on social media, you have likely come across Marie Kondo and the KonMari method of tidying-up. This method works so that to simplify your life, you can only keep things which spark joy for you. If something does not spark joy you must thank it for all it has taught you before you discard of it. I can confirm that showing gratitude works, not only because I have watched every episode of the show on Netflix, but because when you give thanks before saying goodbye, it demonstrates that you have considered your options, and you have decided that what should be is better than what is.

So, with Marie Kondo in mind, I have one question for my fellow graduates to consider today: what is it that sparks joy for you?

We have completed a breadth of work which is complex, dynamic, evidence-based, and yes, joyful. Side-by-side we have worked to promote health equity, and when the public health programs and policies we create are successful, we see health improve and joy flourish. And, while we know the concept of health equity, “the attainment of the highest level of health for all people”, is not complex, we will spend the rest of our lives experiencing how complex people are and how the convergence of power, institution, and health is even more complicated.

So graduates, I will change the question I just asked: As a student of public health, what does not spark joy for you? And how will you say ‘thank you and goodbye’ so that your work creates a brighter future? Because as newly minted public health professionals, there is work to be done.

So I urge you: investigate the intersection where public health meets policy, community, and institution. We must make health accessible to everyone, no matter their identity, place of origin, or belief system.

I invite you to question power and how we use it. Be the loudest voice in the room and ask if ‘the way we have always done it’ is the right way and if this way gives everyone a fair opportunity.

And finally, I beg you, I beg you to call-out practices such as red-lining, gerrymandering and migrant detention. When groups are marginalized and punished just for being different, you have to stand up for what is right, even when, and especially when, it doesn’t directly impact you, because to enter the field of public health is to open your heart and your mind to the experiences of others.

In this field, we must be vulnerable and kind while balancing being fierce and unshakeable. We must be humble and recognize our own privilege so that we can figure out where we fit in to the work we do. And, we must be willing to give, and give, and give, so that even if just one person benefits from our efforts, it is a victory.

I learned much of this from my classmates, and I watched how our intuition to spark joy is a part of who we are. And whether we know it or not, we made a clear decision to seek out and to choose a life of joy when we enrolled in the Colorado School of Public Health.

I also learned from my families at the school. They taught me that the power of sparking joy is not mine to hold, or to give, or to take, because the only way to ignite joy in others is to kindle your own work with love, authenticity, and dedication.

For me, it was the joy of the students: getting a quality free breakfast at school, because as the kitchen manager, I did not allow processed food to be served in the cafeteria. So thank you chocolate muffins, and GOODBYE, you have taught me that muffins are simply cupcakes in a breakfast disguise.

It was the joy of my colleagues while I was the school secretary: asking community groups to help with school supplies, winter gear, and the most popular of all, birthday goodies. Because as a staff we said, ‘we can’t do this alone’. Thank you for the help. GOODBYE, to the heartache we all experience when a family can’t afford a new coat or special birthday treat.

And it was the joy of the parents: knowing that as the school nurse, I would protect their child, regardless of immigration status. Because I made a conscious choice to say, “I am thankful for the opportunities my boys have, and I believe your child has every right to those same opportunities”. GOODBYE to the idea that nationality determines the value of a child’s future.

Despite the daily traumas my community faced, I learned the most important lesson I have ever learned: every parent loves their child so fiercely that it hurts, and we do the best we can with what we have; but, the reality for many is that without access to health, this joy is not possible.

If there is one thing to take away from what I am sharing today, it is this: I challenge you, each and every graduate, faculty member, family and friend in this room today, to take your passions and your skills to build a future where everyone has a fair chance at health, at life, and at joy.

Because since starting this program, I have been given the gift of So. Much. Joy. And as my fellow graduates have worked so hard as well, I am certain they have been given this same gift, too, because love brings forth an amount of joy which can never be extinguished, and we love public health to our core. Our new degrees are not just formal accreditations; they are an attempt to quantify and to tangibly represent the profound joy we carry.

So today, I would like to say: goodbye to health inequity; to the systems, policies, and institutions which perpetuate health disparity. You do not spark joy for me, so thank you for showing me that we are all equal, we all deserve health, and we all desire to live a life full of joy.

Graduates, the world needs your magic to ‘tidy-up’ our communities so that every generation is healthier than the next. We are shifting the paradigm: in which access to health is a right, and not a privilege and where the concept of ‘health equity’ simply becomes the concept of ‘health’.

Continue to pursue your work with gratitude and with joy, because remember: it only takes a spark to light a fire.

Melissa's speech can be viewed on YouTube.