IMG 4668The 3rd Annual Community Engagement Institute (CEI) drew participants from as far away as Nigeria, New York City, Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi to join Alabamians in exploring “The Journey to Justice: Expanding the Possibilities.” The daylong educational and training event took place on Friday, Oct. 14th, bringing together academic and community researchers, leaders, advocates, organizers, funders, and students to exchange ideas, build skills, and meet potential collaborators.

Nearly 170 people filled the East Ballroom of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex to hear from CEI’s first keynote speaker of the day, Kevin Powell. Political activist, writer, poet, and entrepreneur, Powell delivered a powerful presentation describing his personal journey to justice juxtaposed against four decades plus of tumultuous American history. Comparing 2016 to the civil rights watershed year 1968, he called for “courageous conversations” and greater “empathy and compassion” to get beyond the racist, sexist, and socioeconomic stereotyping underlying the violence in our country. “Justice,” he said, “must be inclusive of everyone’s culture.”

Representative Jeramay Anderson, who became the youngest African America ever elected to a U.S. legislative body when he won a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2013, explored the role of justice in “making America exceptional” in his keynote presentation at lunch. “Justice is giving every child a shot, no matter their zip code, because justice is not only the absence of oppression, but the presence of opportunity” he said. He noted that “with the $80 billion spent annually to keep people incarcerated in the U.S. we could have universal pre-k for every child in this country, when every dollar we invest doubles in value.”

The CEI breakout sessions provided opportunities for attendees to explore their personal biases; learn how to talk about social determinants of health and disparities without causing groups to polarize along political, socioeconomic, religious, or cultural lines; hear lessons learned from a program cultivating youth for social justice; and delve deeper into the causes of urban blight and brainstorm strategies to improve the health of those living in blighted neighborhoods.

This year’s poster session featured a mix of research findings, program evaluation, and professional skills development. Attendees networked with poster presenters and each other while learning about diverse public health topics, including cognitive programs for breast cancer survivors, social network analysis for evaluating community health collaboration, rural health initiatives for aging African Americans with heart disease, the impact of community health workers on an uninsured diabetes population, methodological advances in behavioral and community HIV/AIDS research, and HPV vaccination among college students.

Max Michael, MD, dean of the UAB School of Public Health, said he was encouraged by the broad range of organizations, disciplines, and backgrounds of this year’ participants, because “that diversity reflects the communities we live in and must inform our discussions of justice and how to make meaningful changes that will improve public health.” He was especially heartened to note the number of millennials who attended, “bringing their energy, passion, and new ideas.”

CEI is hosted by the CCTS community engagement component, One Great Community (OGC), and the UAB Center for the Study of Community Health’s Jefferson County Community Participation Board. OGC Director Dr. Shauntice Allen noted “there is so much to do” but encouraged attendees to “please think about what you are able to do to move the needle on justice. I hope today has helped you to stretch your thinking.”
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