Health Advocacy in New & Unprecedented Times

Oregon PSR's 2020 Summer Intern Alissa Vandenbark interviewed members of our staff, Board of Directors, and some of our volunteers to see how our work has changed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please continue reading to learn more about how our work has shifted over the past few months.

The world has changed rapidly and dramatically within the last five months, and Oregon PSR has had to change along with it. There have been important shifts in the way we work, which issues we work on, and the momentum behind certain issues. I’m sure you have heard this word enough that you may be as tired of hearing it as I am, but we are living in unprecedented times. As such, we felt it was important to document what it is like to do health advocacy work right now.

To collect a broad range of perspectives, I interviewed staff, Board members, and active volunteers with our Healthy Climate Action Team (HCAT), all of whom have been involved in this work for years. Each person I interviewed has a unique perspective on our work and the state of the world, but the most common sentiment was one I agree with, that this time is difficult and frustrating for personal and work reasons, but it is also exciting to think that society is at a turning point that could result in lasting positive change.

First, I want to give some context for the work Oregon PSR normally does, and how much it has had to shift. I am an intern this summer, and have been doing all of my work with Oregon PSR virtually, so I had to ask some of the staff members who were around for the transition. Damon Motz-Storey, the Healthy Climate Program Director, explained to me that before the pandemic, most of the weekly and daily staff interactions were fully in-person, as were quarterly Board meetings. The monthly Peace Work Group meetings had an option to call in, and the HCAT meetings were always a monthly conference call, but there were enough in-person events and action items (protests, testimony, etc.) that staff, volunteers, and Board members saw each other frequently. Oregon PSR went fully virtual in March, a few days before most organizations began to seriously consider it. Kelly Campbell, our Executive Director, explained that we followed the recommendation of a member who had worked in infectious disease, even though “at the time it felt like it might be unnecessarily cautious.” Of course, it quickly became clear that it was the right decision to make, and other PSR chapters and other partners expressed thanks for Oregon PSR’s language and policies around the pandemic as an example, including physical distancing and cautioning against anti-Asian racism. 

The transition online, though necessary, has not been without frustrations. Many people I interviewed found Zoom and similar video conferencing programs to be better than traditional conference calls, but also incredibly exhausting to use for extended periods of time. There isn’t the same feeling of camaraderie or energy that comes from being physically in a room together, and it is much more difficult to create or strengthen working relationships. Maria Landin, the 2019-2020 Quaker Voluntary Service Fellow, summed up the feelings of many respondents when she said “working in-person with others, you inevitably get to know them as people. That’s so much more challenging to do when there are screens in between!” Working virtually has also changed who is able to participate in meetings. Some of our members work in the medical field and don’t always have time to attend in-person meetings, but can squeeze in virtual meetings more easily. Others, who don’t live near Portland and would normally have to commute several hours to attend meetings, no longer need to. I completed my internship from Wisconsin without feeling detached from the work I was doing in Oregon. However, some members don’t have easy access to or practice using the new technology, and are struggling to stay involved. The pandemic has revealed stark inequalities along a “digital divide” that leaves some people who cannot access high-speed internet behind. Going forward, we hope to find ways to combine in-person and virtual interaction to include as many people as possible.

Our events and action items had to change to adapt to an online-only world as well. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we had planned a series of events relative to our nuclear disarmament work and remembering the generational devastation of nuclear bombs, culminating in a large outdoor event complete with speakers, musicians, and other performers. All of that had to be condensed into a virtual event of about an hour, with recorded versions of most of the presentations played live over a Zoom screen share. The event was still very powerful and well attended, but it was a good example of how we had to re-imagine what every part of our summer would look like. Another example comes in the form of several webinars held this summer, sometimes in conjunction with other nonprofits or educators from the Pacific Northwest, which have reached broad audiences. In particular, we have held a number of workshops on how to write letters to the editor or op-eds on specific issues, and several participants have been published.

Oregon PSR members normally engage in advocacy and provide testimony to promote or oppose policies or projects, most of which now happens online. There were mixed feelings about this transition among the people I talked to. Some stressed that with the closure of most other summer activities and the ability to participate from home, more people have been able and willing to put time and effort into these projects. Personally, I have appreciated the increased opportunities for lobbying virtually because it has allowed me to stay involved in local politics where I go to school, where each of my parents live, and in the communities affected by my work at Oregon PSR. However, Board members David Chatfield and Pat O’Herron, both experienced activists, worry that it is much easier to ignore public input online. They describe online lobbying as a numbers game that doesn’t allow individuals to share personal stories, which are the most effective tool for changing politicians’ minds. It is also more difficult to engage in effective civil disobedience when officials aren’t in their offices and it can be dangerous to form a crowd.

Speaking of large crowds and civil disobedience, the story of this summer would not be complete without mentioning the massive racial justice movement that has been ongoing since the end of May. The brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, after decades of racist police brutality without accountability, brought the country to the streets, with huge protests in all 50 states and over 60 countries worldwide. This massive groundswell of people and support has brought issues like racial justice, criminal justice, and policing to the forefront of US politics. Portland in particular has seen massive, sustained demonstrations and brutal police retaliation including illegal actions from federal officers. Oregon PSR has done some work on these issues in the past, although it was not our main focus, and many of our members have been actively involved in this work outside of our organization, so I was interested to know how this movement has changed their activism. Many of our older members were frustrated that their health concerns precluded them from being out in the streets protesting themselves, but have been taking the time to learn new forms of allyship/accomplicity in the fight against systemic racism. Other members have been protesting, donating, advocating for the movement, and educating themselves. Oregon PSR has sent out action opportunities for members to support Black Lives Matter through a variety of ways, including signing petitions, supporting medical workers at protests and offering safety advice for those attending protests. The group has also weighed in on police violence, tear gas use, and racism as public health threats, testifying to Portland City Council and the state legislature. 

Given the momentum around this Movement for Black Lives, I asked people what opportunities they thought had been created or deepened by the conjunction of the pandemic and the protests. Some, like Patsy Kullberg, an HCAT member, noted the widespread shift towards beliefs that have long been seen as radical, like defunding the police, reparations, completely rethinking incarceration, or ending homelessness and poverty. She hopes that this “radicalization” of public opinion can continue, that people will continue to question common inequalities and push for needed systemic change. Others, like Kelly, talked about the way that the intersection of the pandemic and the movement is making existing inequalities more visible, while Pat stressed the interconnectedness of all inequalities and the need for movements with seemingly disparate goals to work together. Environmental preservation, racial justice, criminal justice reform, and human health are all so deeply connected that progress on one issue requires collaboration on all of them. Many expressed hope that the local, incremental changes we are witnessing in places like Minneapolis will continue around the country.

As a part of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Oregon PSR is connected to the medical community in a way that positions it differently than some other advocacy organizations. I asked everyone what they thought that role was, particularly in regards to the current racial justice movement and the coronavirus pandemic. Several people pointed to a recent project, spearheaded by Lluvia Merello, our Energy Justice Organizer, to get people released from Oregon’s state prisons. Our name and membership lends us a certain credibility to speak on issues of health like removing people from prisons, environments in which it is nearly impossible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In a time when people are looking to the medical community for accurate and well-considered information, many of my interviewees feel that we have a responsibility to provide it, both about the coronavirus and about the health connections to other issues. Some pointed to the rising importance of Dr. Anthony Fauci in White House briefings, and the ways that people have looked to him rather than the president for leadership.

However, when I pressed people about the credibility of doctors and the responsibility that comes along with it, many also stressed the importance of using the credibility very carefully so as not to cause harm. There was strong agreement that medical professionals are used to being the expert in the room, and can inadvertently silence important, less privileged voices if they don’t step back and listen to the communities they are trying to help, whether in the clinic or an organizing meeting. Damon also brought up the history of the AIDS crisis and the ways that some bodies are treated as more or less worthy of treatment. In a time when some overwhelmed health care systems are having to choose who to focus treatment on, he stressed that “we ought to learn a careful lesson about not devaluing the lives of any human being based on things like ‘pre-existing conditions’ that are, for example, disproportionately caused by structural racism.”

Although it came up somewhat in answers to other questions, I wanted to ask specifically what each person sees as the biggest opportunities to build a better world, and what they feel is the biggest challenge to that progress. This question got surprisingly similar answers, with hope that the increased awareness of existing inequalities brought about by simultaneous economic, social, and health crises has the possibility of ushering in new, significant changes to every facet of society. However, the existing power structures form the greatest challenge to change, and they won’t disappear overnight. It will be important to continue to resist replicating the same inequalities in the new systems we struggle to create. 

The final question of my interview asked each person to reflect on what they have learned in the past few months that they want to keep in mind going forward, and I want to leave you all with some of their words of wisdom.

“We are interconnected. We cannot afford to live a selfish or self-centered life in this society, as everything we do, no matter how small, has an impact on the rest of us.” - Maria Landin

“It's okay to have some hope, even if it means being disappointed frequently.” - Dr. Pat O’Herron

 “We are all incredibly resilient and we can choose to lean into the better parts of our nature in times of crisis” - Damon Motz-Storey

“Each of us can make a difference using our individual skill sets.” - Carina Perez Europa

A huge thank you to Kelly Campbell, David Chatfield, Patsy Kullberg, Maria Landin, Lluvia Merello, Damon Motz-Storey, Pat O’Herron, Carina Perez Europa, and others who prefer to remain anonymous for answering all of my questions and making this essay possible. An additional thank you to Oregon PSR as a whole for hosting me as an intern this summer even after all of our plans had to be reworked.

Alissa Vandenbark (pictured above) interned with Oregon PSR remotely during the summer of 2020, pivoting plans for an in-person internship to an all-online experience once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States. We are so grateful for her many excellent contributions to our organization, including her authorship of this documentation project.