Higher Ed, Public Health

Gratitude for Gillings Public Health

November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

In this message, I share observations from our annual World of Difference event, held November 8. The World of Difference dinner is our thank you to donors who generously support students, faculty and groundbreaking initiatives. This message is for those who attended and those who were not present.

Throughout the evening, alumni told stories about what the School means to them, and how it has enriched their lives, setting in motion careers, families and generative, meaningful work. Retired faculty members who are generous donors returned to celebrate the past and the future. Older generations of faculty and staff and their students, now mature, have worked to make a world that is safer, healthier and more environmentally just. We need their stories, their history and their presence among us.

Members of public health families spoke of how much it meant to be in a place where their parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters had thrived, found community and made a difference. We spoke of people who have passed away but whose impacts still are felt strongly.

Delton Atkinson (left), MPH, and Sherry Holbrook-Atkinson (center) enjoyed visiting with Atkinson Scholarship recipient Jeliyah Clark (right), who is a doctoral student in Environmental Sciences and Engineering.

Some of us thought about the parents, siblings, friends and colleagues in whose memories we have given gifts that comfort us and sustain legacies. These stories nourish us and connect current students to a proud past and future possibilities. New generations of students carry forward the stories of those we have loved. It is all part of the cycle of seasons we reflect upon at Thanksgiving. Students invited to thank the benefactors who provided their scholarships see that they are part of an ongoing story of people and progress, a community that is bigger and stronger than any of us alone. We hope that someday they, too, will return to be among friends in the School and celebrate the past and future in a room filled with love. Then, their generosity, too, will be fêted by future generations.

The room, filled with communal tables where food was passed, was a metaphor for the community we experience at Gillings and in the larger public health community. Our community comes, in part, from shared commitment to meaningful work; unwillingness to accept injustice, inequity and lost opportunities; a commitment to evidence and effective action and profound impatience for progress. The tie that binds us in all of this is love – for each other, our collective mission, and work that drives, nurtures and, ultimately, sustains us.

Guests sang “Happy Birthday” to Dr. Morris Weinberger (right), chair of health policy and management.

Research is an act of love and devotion as we seek answers to problems that threaten the future of humanity and the environment. Teaching and mentoring students is an act of love, a statement of belief in a better future, because those students will become the standard bearers for a healthier world.

We rarely speak of love in professional settings. Love is for, well, lovers, families, country, religion, but not for a room full of people bound by history and mission. Yet, love is part of what binds us to one another in a never-ending quest for a better, healthier world.It’s been a difficult few years on our campus, in our state and country and in the larger world. We tire of meanness, inequity, violence and isms, such as racism and sexism. We’ve experienced the imbalance of the natural world—floods, violent winds, hurricanes, tsunamis and fires that warn of worse if we do not act now on climate. That too is public health.

There is too much suffering in the world, and so much of it preventable. It’s disheartening and unacceptable. Yet, I’m encouraged by the many conversations about voting that occurred around the recent midterm elections. “I voted” stickers were badges of pride, encouragement and belief in the future. My own sticker ignited conversations in grocery stores with people who asked questions about early voting.

Recent books help us understand the present in the context of American history and the larger world (e.g., These Truths, by Jill Lepore, 2018). Lepore’s book reminds us that the original Thanksgiving we celebrate this week was a time of barbaric cruelty by those who colonized this country as they turned on the Native people who were here first. Acknowledging our history, including the role of this campus and many others in perpetuating racial inequality, is necessary to move forward.

Yes, there is too much pain in the world. Still, every day, I am heartened by many acts of goodness, selflessness, courage, dedication and commitment in our School and in the larger public health community. We are united in our commitment to solve great public health problems and challenges. Although impatient to get past the limitations of now, I am hopeful, because of what I see every day at the Gillings School. I am grateful for and to the Gillings community and for the privilege of work that also is a mission.

I wish everyone in the Gillings community and all those everywhere a welcoming Thanksgiving filled with love, plentiful healthy food, safety, peace, understanding that transcends partisanship, gratitude for the blessings each of us has and a commitment to share them with others. Happy holiday, and if you’re traveling, return safely!


World of Difference photos by Embee Kanu Photography. (Mr. Kanu is a Gillings School MPH student in Nutrition.)

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.