This year our Legislature approved a proposal (HB2) to fund a New Mexico School of Public Health as a collaboration between the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University. I’m writing in support of the proposal, first and foremost as someone who has both lived experience as an American Indian – Kewa Pueblo and one who has worked in public health for 30 years. I served as president of the New Mexico Public Health Association and was the first American Indian president of the American Public Health Association in 2001.
There are approximately 60 accredited schools of public health in the United States, and regionally the Southwest is home to the fewest. Our existing programs at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University offer a master’s in public health, but to obtain a higher degree one must leave the state. A full-scope accredited School of Public Health would not only raise our profile within U.S. universities but would attract research funding, helping to develop innovative approaches to public health problems and contribute to our workforce. Our biomedical labs, startups and existing medical centers could all benefit.
Some students prefer to stay close to home through their education, and in my experience, this is especially true for individuals from our Indigenous, Hispanic and underserved communities. An accredited School of Public Health should be a beacon of inclusion and equity that would enable a new and diverse group of leaders to help our state deal with public health crises as they emerge in the future. Let’s raise our academic excellence and create a new paradigm that recognizes the strengths and assets of those who have borne the burden of marginalization and health disparities.
We need to create a dynamic public health model that serves all New Mexicans. If we do move forward with a commitment toward creating a New Mexico School of Public Health, I hope in the planning process the following steps are included:
• A viability study focusing on how to address the highly varying needs of different ethnic and racial minorities in our minority-majority state, including consulting with Native and Hispanic community health leaders already engaged in this field.
• Scope out new sources of funding outside of state windfall monies. Identify potential partnerships and unique program opportunities with public health programs elsewhere.
• Focus on translational research that can inform state policy.
• Design a system that defines public health in the broadest terms. A holistic community-based approach that recognizes the value of all who seek to serve community – public health practitioners, social workers, mental health providers, community health workers, community health providers. Hire and support faculty from those disciplines. Provide training and educational opportunities for promotion and tenure.
• Identify students who have a passion to serve their communities and support them financially, professionally and provide them with role models they can learn from and emulate as they develop into professionals who might well choose to serve their communities and contribute to the state and nation.
I admit, I was one of those students who left New Mexico to attend UC Berkeley School of Public Health. I was honored to be recognized in 2018 by the school as one of the 75 Most Influential Alumni. I came home because I love New Mexico and as a descendant of people who have been here longer than anyone, this will always be my home.