Blog 60

What does it mean to be on the “frontlines of health”? Designing assignments to train students to discover “the story behind the story” in health policy.

Claudia Chaufan, Associate Professor, School of Health Policy & Management

Samantha Yoo

Samantha Sanghee Yoo, Student, Health Studies Program, 1st year

This assignment, labeled “guest lecture report”, is one course requirement within a large, survey course, Foundations of Health Studies 2, also known as Health on the Frontlines, in the Health Studies Major within the School of Health Policy and Management.

This past winter term I became the course director and redesigned the course such that a significant number of assignments are now geared towards training students to develop skills applicable to real-world settings. These skills include what I believe to be the critical ability of competently communicating information relevant to the political and social determination of health, the key theme of this course, to the larger public.  Specific objectives of the assignment include training students to identify and summarize key information, critically evaluate this information, and translate specialized language to one that is meaningful to the larger public and that conveys the significance of the topic at hand to a democratic society.

The turnover is quick, so students must turn in their reports (for now, only 2 of 5 possible reports are required), no more than one week after the actual event, to mimic the reality of journalism. At the same time, as this a “low-stakes writing” assignment (graded from 1 to 3 points), everybody who does a very good or better job earns the maximum possible points. At least in principle, this allows students to express themselves more freely and feel less under pressure than when writing full-fledged papers.

The actual prompt invites students to put themselves in the shoes of a reporter for a college newspaper, working with the “health beat”, and gives them the task of reporting back on a guest lecture series featuring activists, professionals, and other members of the community.

I consider this to be a “real world” task that many of our students will have a need or use for, as policy analysts, healthcare workers, or simply politically competent citizens. In a handful of cases the results have been spectacular, and being new at York, I must confess beyond my expectations. Today I am very pleased at the opportunity to share one such result, the work of one student, Samantha Yoo, with the readership of Y-File.


Zapatista Shows True Democracy Is Possible, But N0t Free

By Samantha Sanghee Yoo

As Canadians, we grow up believing that we live in one of the most vibrant free democracies in the world. We are taught that as long as we vote and there are two or more political parties, we have a great system for representation. But is this true? Are we really free to shape our lives as we wish? Are you in control over things like where you find a house, prices of your allergy-free food, and your employment benefits?        

While many people, like us, remain in the system, willingly or not, some fight to create alternative systems. Here is one inspiring example of a different, participatory form of democracy, shared by Ms. Mariana Astrid Nunez Silva in her talk at York University on April 3.

 The Zapatistas are a group of indigenous communities located in Chiapas, Mexico. After years of land deprivation, poverty, and inadequate healthcare and education, and triggered by Mexico’s signing of the North-America Free Trade Agreement, which would reduce them to cheap laborers for giant capitalists on the continent, the Zapatistas rebelled against the Mexican government. On January 1, 1994, the effective date of the NAFTA, they declared a war – a war in which not a single bullet was fired and to this day, waged simply with words and peaceful demonstrations.         

Despite armed attacks, assassinations, and half-hearted promises by the Mexican government, the Zapatismo movement persevered and evolved. For 23 years since the historic uprising, it has advocated autonomy, liberty, justice, tolerance, and human rights. It has formed an alternative government which represents all communities; developed its own school curriculum that teaches about capitalism and class struggles; and built clinics based on traditional medicine. Their economy is built around a cooperative model, under which producers, investors and consumers are one, and all gains are shared across the communities. Snail House is a notable initiative to re-distribute resources among the ethnic communities in Zapatista.              

While these movements have been suppressed or dismissed by the mainstream media and political elites in Mexico and the West, they have been hailed as the beacon of grassroots democracy by progressive camps and social movements throughout the world.     

So what is it like to live in Zapatista? Well, Ms. Silva had a chance to take part in an open house program in 2012 and experience first-hand the “dignified rebellion” of Zapatismo. She arrived in La Realidad, met her Votan (guardian), and travelled to Santa Rosa Del Copan. There was no road, no electricity, and at first she couldn’t believe it. But as she learned about the Zapatistas’ belief in independence and self-sufficiency, she became appreciative of all the progress and the organic functioning of the communities. “It was amazing. To eat food grown by the hands that will never again be subservient to any oppressive forces..” That must have been something.

“For Zapatistas, resistance came first, before establishment of the governing body. Institution came after the people, not the other way around. The people are the government. A core Zapatista value is “Aim to be lower and not above.” Ms. Silva concluded, “The progress is slow, but let us not lose hope!”

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