In spring of 2016, as a second-semester junior in the Health and Societies program at Penn, I had developed an interest in public health policy and sought to use my last few semesters to gain a concrete understanding of the many factors that influence health and the inherent nuances that accompany them. I knew that taking the Social Determinants of Health course with Professor Andi Johnson would help me achieve this understanding, but along with the important subject matter we discussed during the course came an opportunity to complement our theoretical understanding of the social determinants of health with a hands-on experience conducting community health research focused on many of the same concepts. Dr. Johnson partnered with Dr. Carolyn Cannuscio, Dr. Anna Morgan, and their team at CPHI, who graciously allowed our whole class to become research assistants for a semester on a project that explored how public libraries function as a health resource for vulnerable populations in Philadelphia.
Our class collected data for an ongoing needs assessment in West Philadelphia; each of us conducted an interview with either a West Philadelphia resident, public library staff member, or a public health/medical professional to better understand the health needs of community members and the needs and experiences of library staff. We then analyzed the data for recurring themes and worked as a class to create a presentation to report back our findings to Dr. Cannuscio and her team, as well as the Free Library of Philadelphia. Our themes revealed several paradoxes, such as a “vibrant,” “diverse” West Philadelphia community unevenly exposed to fear, violence, and trauma and a community surrounded by renowned universities and hospitals, but an uneven access to education, employment, and power among its members.
Ultimately, our class reinforced the trends Dr. Cannuscio’s team had seen in a previous needs assessment conducted in South Philadelphia: libraries are doing what they can to address many of the major health issues they see in their community, but they can only do so much given the resources available to them. Though not obvious on the surface, libraries are a health resource for the community, and library staff are required to wear multiple hats in their day-to-day activities, many of which they haven’t had formal training for but perform out of necessity to help their patrons. This exemplifies why it’s critical to support public libraries in our communities, because increasingly, they are one of the last few consistently reliable spaces left for children, families, and adults of all ages to feel comfortable and safe. This shared work was ultimately published in Health Affairs.
I enjoyed working on this novel approach toward improving population health, so I took advantage of occasions outside of class to get more involved. Luckily enough, Dr. Cannuscio's team was looking for a research assistant for the following spring semester. I jumped on the opportunity and I’m glad I did. Since then, I've seen this research expand to new branches of the library, have been privileged to meet and learn from many of Philadelphia's community members, and significantly strengthened my quantitative and qualitative public health research skills.
For example, after the needs assessment, I helped to administer and evaluate a Community Health Specialist training program for staff at the South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center. This was a four-session program, each session focusing on a different topic: homelessness and housing insecurity, mental health and substance abuse, new Americans, and children and families that have experienced trauma. The goal was to equip staff with basic knowledge and resources to help patrons they encounter that are experiencing these struggles, which is a common occurrence. We taught participants, but in many ways, they also taught us by sharing their experiences and their ideas for how to work toward alleviating these issues we see in Philadelphia. This is only one of several exciting projects the Healthy Library Initiative is working on.
The partnership between CPHI and the Health and Societies program proved to be a natural one: each entity shares the common goal of understanding and improving health by critically examining it in social context, while using a multidisciplinary lens to brainstorm solutions for society's most pressing ills. I’m thrilled to have been an example of how both HSOC and CPHI can work together to create an enriching undergraduate experience for students interested in public health and am excited to see this connection grow and flourish in the future.
Post by Puja Upadhyay.