It was starkly evident at the weekend's 14th annual NYSUT Professional Issues Forum on Health Care just how heavily social justice issues weigh on health care concerns.
A session on poverty's impact on community health drew a large crowd of health care professionals who shared stories of the growing homeless student population and poor students in their districts who present with physical, mental and emotional health care concerns.
"We are the most unequal society in the world," said Martha Livingson, professor and chair of the public health department at SUNY College at Old Westbury, where she is a member of United University Professions. "Twenty-two percent of our children live in poverty… an obscenely large percentage."
Refugee and immigrant health concerns were identified in another session, as were health issues and disparities in the LGBT community, where students and staff face obstacles in regards to their health and wellness. The human rights perspective on health care access was also explored, as was political advocacy in health care.
The forum, held at NYSUT headquarters in Latham, drew 117 health care professionals. Thirty-six of them were first-timers, including one student.
"This is the union's home and each and every one of you has a place here," said Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president who oversees the union's health care constituency. Union activism is a strong route to show why it is important to have mental health professionals in schools.
"Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off." - Paul Brodeur, Outrageous Misconduct, as quoted by Martha Livingston
Attendees included school nurses, school social workers, hospital and visiting nurses, school psychologists, and physical, speech and occupational therapists in the field of education.
"There are a lot of great tools. A lot of the topics really hit the populations we're dealing with," said first-time attendee Nisha David, a Newburgh TA school nurse. Some students have low socio-economic status, behavioral issues, gang affiliation or immigrant issues.
Growing up nearby, David said "It means a lot to me to come back to help." Circled around her at a table were other newly hired health care professionals from Newburgh. "We want to be part of everything that can help students," she said.
Anne Goldman, chair of the NYSUT Health Care Professionals Council, which hosted the forum, encouraged the attendees to let their colleagues know how much being in a union can help make change and how important it is to be activists.
Health Care Professionals of the Year from 2015 and 2016 were honored.
Mindy Karten Bornemann, one of this year's honorees, said in her forum speech that the union provides opportunity, support, respect, voice and unity. She is a member of the UFT, which represents 3,000 speech therapists like herself. Working through the UFT, the therapists have developed a long distance master's degree for speech therapy, a professional development program with "super speakers" on Saturdays and Sundays and a "survival" class for newcomers that matches them with mentors. The master's program has graduated 350 speech therapists who are helping to fill the shortage in the field, she said
Cathleen Cavanagh, Patchogue-Medford Professionals Nurses Association, is also a 2016 Health Care Professional of the Year honoree.