Karen Weliky, DMD is a volunteer with Oregon PSR’s Peace Work Group. She first discovered the organization through her work as a photographer for art events at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon Annex with our We Hold Sacred nuclear justice exhibit in 2021. She has taken photographs for Oregon PSR rallies to stop pipeline construction, including our Stop Line 3 health professionals solidarity event earlier this year, and she hopes to continue her event photography for the organization as in-person events resume. In addition to her arts background, Karen comes to Oregon PSR with a robust science background through her past and present careers as an oceanographer and a dentist, enabling her to act upon her converging passions for climate change and health advocacy.
Recently, Karen returned from a service trip to Guatemala with Global Dental Relief, a Denver-based organization that delivers pro-bono dentistry to children in underserved communities around the world. This is her first service trip abroad since the beginning of the pandemic, but her 14th trip with the organization; in the past, Karen has volunteered in India, Cambodia, Nepal, and Tibet to name a few. She highlights the issue of water contamination as one that she has witnessed frequently, undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change: “When we go abroad, we're serving people in villages with no water or the water is contaminated … fishing is disrupted, coffee growing is affected, and farming is affected by drought.”
In her advocacy and writing, Karen emphasizes the importance of specific and detailed storytelling as a way to move audiences to action. Through her volunteerism and experience working with impoverished communities, she recounts the importance of focusing on humanizing details when working at the intersection of health and climate change. For example, warning that “climate change increases the risk and likelihood of natural disasters” evokes a completely different emotion and response than highlighting a detailed scenario that will intimately impact individuals: “The man died because of a drought brought on by climate change, which made it impossible to farm and sell the coffee that sustained him financially.”
In the future, Karen hopes to author pieces related to her medical trips abroad, as well as the ways that issues of health, justice, and peace intersect in her work as a dentist at home. For example, she is passionate about increasing widespread access to education on dental hygiene and advocating for the fluoridation of community water systems in Oregon (Oregon has the 3rd lowest water fluoridation rate in the United States - ranking 48th in the nation). “In Oregon, we keep voting down efforts to put fluoride in water sources, but fluoride is shown to make enamel stronger,” says Karen. “It enters the structure of the enamel as children and makes teeth more resistant to decay. If you don’t have access to supplements or dental care, then you don’t get those benefits if there’s no fluoride in the water.” In addition to fluoridation, Karen highlights that there is a larger need for dental health and education to be taken seriously as an area of health and medicine – long gone are the days of barbers pulling teeth. “Dentistry is not just elective or cosmetic. It's a huge health problem, and dentistry and medicine should not be separate. If we can prevent dental disease early, through education and early detection, we can prevent people from losing teeth and even dying from tooth infections.”
She mentions that she would love to invite more dentists into advocacy work, as they are often left out of medical professional conversations despite their vital role in protecting human health. As experts on the treatment of head and neck injury and illness, dentists conduct life-saving screenings for oral and thyroid cancers. Dentists and oral surgeons also bear witness to trauma and violence, conducting the facial reconstruction surgeries that follow gun violence. Karen’s wide-ranging passions and diverse areas of expertise exemplify that we can all show up to advocacy work in different ways – as long as we are showing up. As an artist, writer, oceanographer, dentist, and activist, Karen brings her full self to Oregon PSR’s health and justice work, and we are grateful to have her on our team!