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UW Honors Program's first Global Challenges Event Encourages Student Conversation on Health and Poverty

Nov 10, 2015
Global Challenges Audience 2015
Global Challenges—Interdisciplinary Answers audience size was nearly double the original estimates.

- by Nicole Einbinder

The HUB South Ballroom was packed on November 3 as over 400 students and other UW community members came together to engage in a discussion on the intersections between health and poverty.

The Global Challenges event, hosted by UW Honors Program, was a year in the making — after last year's HONORS 100 students (mostly incoming freshmen) voiced a desire to engage with the big questions they care about.

In light of Seattle's state of emergency on homelessness and the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, conversations about poverty are especially crucial, according to Honors Program Director, Relational Poverty Network co-founder, and event moderator, Vicky Lawson.

"I don’t think we can have enough of these kinds of conversations," said speaker LaShawnDa Pittman, assistant professor of American Ethnic Studies, in her opening remarks.

Lawson asked the speakers three core questions, posed during the RSVP process by students, before delving into a larger conversation with the audience. Topics ranged from the underlying causes for health-related poverty to major obstacles in combatting these challenges.

According to speaker Steve Gloyd, professor of global health, while the textbooks often assume poverty is driven by a lack of education, jobs, healthcare, and other amenities, they never discuss the factors that stem from us.

"If the national liberation movements in Mozambique and India and all these countries hadn't been suppressed by the U.S. and former colonial powers didn't do structural adjustment we wouldn't be talking about global health," said speaker Chandan Reddy, associate professor of English and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.

In his opening remarks, Professor Reddy quoted doctor/social activist Paul Farmer, whose collection of speeches To Repair the World helped this year's HONORS 100 students prepare for the event: "The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world."

All three speakers stressed the importance of coming together across academic fields to ensure that people of various backgrounds can have a voice in the face of gross global inequalities. They also highlighted the difficulties of understanding the structural causes of poverty when coming from a background of privilege.

"It's really good to be a better listener," said Reddy, lamenting the fact that universities boast large research collections and urban ethnographies, yet there are less people of color enrolled in universities than in the 1970s. "But you have to figure out why you want to listen to someone. If it's only for you to get knowledge that's about you again."

Freshman Honors student Kimberly Ruth, 19, says that variety of perspectives is why she chose to attend the event, explaining: "There are so many facets to the issues and so many questions that need to be asked in order to find solutions."

During the 30-minute Q&A just under a dozen people — from freshmen to alumni to community members — posed questions to the speakers. Questions ranged from policy opinions on U.S. food aid to how corporate and private institutions can participate in equity conversations in a constructive manner.

One student posed a challenge to the audience: "Raise your hand if you believe in privilege." The room was a sea of hands. But the real question was harder to answer, "So, what can we do to recognize and account for this privlege while making a better world?"

All three speakers encouraged students to be active on campus (and off) with the issues they care about. Reddy said that he hopes some of them will become cultural activists, writers, and filmmakers to bring a voice to those often left on the sidelines.

"It really is a privilege to be in this room," Pittman added. "There are so many people who would love to be in college right now and can't be. We all have a role to play and it's going to be difficult for everyone."

Throughout the discussion, the (mostly student) audience, decked out in Seahawks gear and in the midst of week six of the quarter, sat engaged and attentive while listening to the issues and considering their own ability to stand against them.

"[The event] is motivation to stay involved and be active on social justice issues on campus and to look at them holistically instead of more narrow perspectives," said freshman Honors student Reilly Richards, 18. "This discussion was about the stuff that I want to do."

The final question of the evening was what the audience should do to best tackle issues of health-related poverty and inequality.

"It's figuring out where your inspiration is and asking those tough questions," Pittman said as the room erupted in cheers. "It may not be what your parents want, or what your friends want or be as lucrative, but it will be so much richer in other ways than you could possibly imagine."