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Laura Colbert Commencement Address to the University of Georgia, College of Public Health’s Graduating Class of 2024

Public Health: People, Power, & Possibility

Courtesy of the UGA College of Public Health

Laura Colbert, Executive Director of GHF, was invited to deliver the commencement address to the graduating Class of 2024 at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Public Health. 

A recording of her remarks is available here and a transcript is provided below. 

Across each of the successful and unsuccessful efforts that I’ve been a part of, I have learned that the best, most effective, most important public health work is done when you stay focused on three key components: People, Power, and Possibility.

-Laura Colbert

Congratulations to the College of Public Health’s 2024 graduating class! 

Courtesy of the UGA College of Public Health

You’ve done it! You’ve taken your last test and finished your last group project…Just kidding: your entire public health career will be group projects! …. I hate to be the bearer of that news for you.  

I am so honored to be here with all of you this afternoon–graduates, your families and loved ones, and the College of Public Health faculty. What a celebratory day to cap off years of hard work and commitment.  

When Dean Davis invited me to give today’s address, I have to say I felt phenomenally underqualified. This is the first commencement address I’ve ever given, so I asked Dean Davis for her advice. 

She said that you all would appreciate knowing just how much you are needed in public health and that the work you will do in your careers will serve the greater good. And to re-assure your parents of essentially the same things. (Parents: they will be fine!)

I thought that was excellent advice—first because everyone likes hearing they are needed and what they do is important. And second, because it is absolutely true. 

You are needed in public health, and you will do important work.

I know that’s the case because I’ve spent almost a decade and a half in the field. 

I am a public health educator and advocate. For the past 7 years, I’ve led an organization called Georgians for a Healthy Future. We are a health policy and advocacy organization, which means that we work in nonpartisan ways to change Georgia’s laws, systems, and policies so that every Georgian has a fair shot to live a healthy, thriving life—regardless of who they are, where they live, or how little money they make.

I spend my days collaborating and working with government public health workers; rural and safety net health care providers; other health advocates; on some days, our state’s elected leaders; and Georgians from lots of walks of life who care about the health and well-being of our state. 

Together and in different combinations, we have won some really awesome public health victories for people across the state: 

  • A new state law requiring health insurers to cover mental health and addiction recovery services at the same levels they cover other kinds of health services;
  • Extending Medicaid coverage from 60-days to 12-months after birth for new mommas so they can get the post-partum care they need;
  • Expanding access to free HIV prevention medications for adults and free dental care for kids in schools. 

There are some other big battles that we haven’t yet won, but we will in the coming months and years. 

Across each of the successful and unsuccessful efforts that I’ve been a part of, I have learned that the best, most effective, most important public health work is done when you stay focused on three key components: People, Power, and Possibility.

I realize that saying People are a key component of public health sounds really obvious. People do the work of public health—that will include all of you in the coming months and years. And we’re doing work with and for People in the community, right? 

It does sound simple, but keeping People at the center of the work that you do can be more difficult than it seems.

Two years ago, my organization was beginning research on housing barriers and challenges for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Georgia. We had just wrapped up a different project about health coverage for the same population and it didn’t go as well as we would have liked. One of the lessons we took from that first project is that we should take the disability advocacy slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us!” more seriously.

So, this time, we knew to bring Georgians with intellectual & developmental disabilities along with us to be successful. This time, we took the time to set up a leadership advisory committee made of Georgians with IDD and their caregivers. We recruited members, oriented them to the research goals, and got their input on the survey tool we were developing. 

And y’all…that time and investment paid off. When we sent out that survey, the leadership team went to work. We were hoping for about 400 responses. With the leadership team’s help, we received 1600 responses from 117 counties across the state — with over-representation from rural areas! 

We couldn’t have asked for better results. And this research and those relationships form the foundation for GHF’s current advocacy and policy work on healthy housing! What an awesome start these leaders gave us—gifting their time, their relationships and networks, and their lived experiences. 

You will have experiences like this too. You will forget to include people because they “don’t know as much as you do” or “it takes too much time”. And then you will remember to build and strengthen relationships, and you will find success. 

Public health is about People. It is also about Possibility and power. 

As a public health advocate, a meaningful part of my job is to imagine (or help other people imagine) a state and a world different from the one we currently live in—a state where no one is ever turned away from health care because they can’t afford it. A state where every school has a full-time school nurse to clean scraped knees and to help kids navigating mental health struggles. A state where we’ve eradicated HIV or gun violence. 

You probably chose to study public health because you are imagining better, healthier Possibilities for a community or a country close to your heart. You all are young, bright humans and your Possibilities are likely so much more imaginative than mine are. We need your youthful energy and ideas about what’s possible in public health!

The second part of my job is to bring together resources and strategies to re-shape systems of power and money to make those Possibilities real. And I would contend that those two tasks are also your tasks—regardless of what job you go on to after this.

In 2019, a coworker and I drove down to Glenwood, Georgia. Glenwood is in Wheeler County and has 850 residents. We were there to hold a community conversation with people living & working in the area about the impacts of their hospital closing. The community conversation went well, and we had gathered some good information to inform the work we were doing. As we were heading back to our car, we bumped into two men—both white, both middle aged, both working primarily in agriculture jobs. 

They asked us why we were visiting Glenwood and we shared that we were interested in learning from Glenwood’s experiences to help prevent other hospital closures around the state through various policy and law changes. 

In these conversations, I’ve found that people quickly make the connection between policy changes and voting, and these men were no different. One of them said, “Our votes should count more than people in Atlanta’s. They’re getting more while we get less.” 

Reflecting back on this conversation, I don’t think this man actually felt that his vote should count more than mine or yours, but he was expressing what he saw as a lack of power because his community wasn’t getting what it needed. 

And they weren’t. The Glenwood hospital had closed in 2014. After the hospital closed, so did the bank, the pharmacy, and the grocery store. Their downtown—2 blocks long along the railroad tracks—went from a lively little strip to essentially empty in the span of a few years. 

They weren’t getting what they needed because they didn’t have enough money and the right influence. Most folks in that county didn’t have health insurance which meant their hospital had a hard time being paid, so it struggled to pay staff and pay the other bills. The other businesses in town couldn’t survive without the traffic that came from the hospital workers, the patients, and their families. 

The tragedy of it all is that there were solutions available for Glenwood. If state leaders had expanded Medicaid when the Affordable Care Act was passed, many more farmers, workers, and parents in Glenwood could have health insurance. And that hospital may have survived. Likely by the skin of its teeth at that point, but survival for another year or several years would have meant a lot to the people of Glenwood. 

So much of our world—including whether your local hospital stays open–is shaped by often invisible power structures, and by the ways that money flows through our economy and our health systems. These structures are twisted and bent by systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and many other -isms that I hope you’ve become familiar with in your training. (And if you haven’t, I would encourage you to seek out reading and mentors on these inequities and their influence on our world today.)

Because you are graduating today — with your first, second, or even third degree— you will hold some level of power. Less than a third of Georgia residents have a college degree and an even smaller proportion hold graduate degrees. You will have access to decisions and resources that many of our family, friends, and neighbors will not. I sit in rooms with elected officials that my next-door neighbors will never meet.

You will unfairly have more power than they do, and when we are doing our best public health work, you will find ways to redistribute that power so it’s slightly less unfair and to get us closer to those Possibilities we imagine for our communities. 

That can look a lot of different ways. In my world, it means advocating for a new law or changing a wonky regulation inside the Department of Community Health. But for you, that could mean partnering with community members to collect and understand the data that tells the story of their health. It could be training teens or young adults in recovery from addiction to be peer counselors helping others do the same thing. It might be helping trans and nonbinary Georgians anonymously share their stories of discrimination in health care, in order to change attitudes and practices in the hospital or insurance company that you work for. 

At its best, public health reshapes unfair and inequitable Power structures in order to realize new Possibilities. That is our job: to work with People, build and redistribute Power, and to make the impossible newly Possible. 

After today, you will enter a world where it is really easy to get lost in the day-to-day. Where daily habits and inertia take hold of your to-do list, instead of innovation and connection. 

It will be easy to simply go through the motions, to pretend like you’re doing public health, rather than really doing it. Skipping the community input part of the process because you’re up against a deadline. Ignoring the power structures that determine the outcomes you’re trying to address because policy change “is just too hard.” Becoming cynical that change is even possible.

But I have faith that you will do more than just pretend –you’ll do good public health work, by applying the skills and expertise that you’ve developed while at this elite institution. 

I am confident you will do public health with and alongside the People. Working together to reshape and rebalance Power. So that the Possibility of a healthier, more equitable future becomes reality. 

I believe that about all of you.

This year marks my 14th year working in public health. I can honestly say there is truly no better work to do every day — and after today, you are joining me in this work!  

What awesome opportunities you have in front of you. Congratulations to you for all of the hard work that brought you here today! 

Kudos and best of luck to all of you–the 2024 class of UGA’s College of Public Health!

Thank you! 

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