Understanding how health inequities and social injustices impact health outcomes both at the local and global health level

Vanessa Voller PhD Candidate – College of Education and Human Development, Global Health Minor

As a sociologist, Vanessa Voller (PhD Candidate) believes that poor health is the result of poor public policy, systemic racism, and other forms of structural oppression. She is passionate about public health because it is a matter of justice. She states “Not having access to health and other social services for adequate housing, safe working conditions, viable public transportation, education is a gross human rights violation. I am committed to dedicating my life to the pursuit of a more equitable and just society. Public health is the modality for me to do that.”

Growing up on the east side of Saint Paul, Vanessa witnessed many of her Hmong, Vietnamese, and Karen neighbors face barriers to healthcare and ultimately have poorer health outcomes than her white and English speaking neighbors and family. Later as an adolescent when she moved to Central America, she witnessed how these health injustices were exacerbated by global inequality. Witnessing these health injustices compelled her academic pursuits in an interdisciplinary doctoral program in education and international development studies. However, after spending a summer in rural Bolivia as a part of a pilot study for her dissertation, she recognized that she needed further training in global public health to better address the upstream causes of the injustices and ultimately improve health outcomes.

Health equity and social justice are central to her work as a social scientist and educator. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she created, facilitated, and evaluated an innovative course for the Community and Global Health program at Macalester College in which learners were immersed in the study of health justice, the social and structural determinants of health, and the principles of health delivery as it relates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, as an Oryema Fellow for SocMed, a transnational health justice organization based in Minneapolis, she assisted in the delivery of a social medicine course in Uganda, Rwanda, and the UMN.

In her pursuit of health justice, Vanessa has learned many lessons. During her first year in the program, one of her global health mentors shared the quote by Rev. Jennifer Bailey, “Relationships are built at the speed of trust and social change happens at the speed of relationships.” This quote fundamentally shaped the ways in which Vanessa approaches her health justice work as it is grounded and rooted in deep commitments. Another lesson she took away from her global health program is the need to shift away from the belief that global health is something that happens only outside of the US and rather global health is happening right here, right now in the Twin Cities.

This past year, Vanessa completed a pre-med post-baccalaureate program at the UMN. Looking ahead, she hopes to couple her current training as a social scientist, health justice educator, and public health practitioner to educate others about social determinants of health, health equity, and health justice, to investigate the root causes of poor health outcomes and policy solutions, and to provide high-quality medical care to the medically underserved in my local and global community. Vanessa hopes to be part of a community of global health practitioners who are catalyzing the movement towards global health equity.

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