Meeting people where they are: Caribbean edition

When you tell people you’re working on a Caribbean island for spring break, they usually want to know if you’re going to actually accomplish anything.

Indeed, blogging over a leisurely breakfast, feeling the breeze floating in off intensely blue waters, the air 85 degrees warmer than the Arctic tundra of Ann Arbor… well, I’d be lying if I said that soaking up Vitamin D for the first time in months felt  like work.

But engaging in public health fieldwork – both domestically and internationally – isn’t just a luxury. In fact, it’s critical to studying public health, whether you intend to become a manager, practitioner, researcher, or decision-maker in any setting. Fieldwork allows you to understand the true limits of your datasets, to imbue context to your analyses and conclusions, and to understand barriers to making policy and managerial decisions that effectively advance their intended goals.

And, crucially, fieldwork isn’t just blue waters and sunny skies, good food and fun travel stories. Frankly, in my public health career thus far, it’s involved a lot more driving in snowstorms than it has blogging with waterfront views. More often than not, meaningful fieldwork involves confronting ugly, difficult issues – of colonialism’s legacy, of race, gender, and class relations, and of globalization and tourism. And in public health, it involves understanding all of these issues’ effects on the economic and cultural contexts that shape people’s eventual health outcomes.

These are the issues we’ve begun exploring already and will continue to explore over the next week. In a session yesterday on Grenada’s history and culture,  a St. George’s University sociologist and a Grenadian drug control official continually reminded us, “The most important thing you can do this week is listen. Listen to their stories. Work to understand their perspectives. And meet people where they are.”

Meeting people where they are? That’s a familiar theme in public health.  And it’s
something you can only do in person, on the ground. Combining it with the beauty and joy of being here is just a bonus.

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