Rachel Kirkland: Climbing my own Mount Everest

June 4/2019

by Rachel Kirkland, DLSPH Graduate

Sitting in the auditorium at 155 College Street on day one of my degree felt a little like how I imagine I’d feel if I decided to climb Mount Everest tomorrow, equipped solely with the vision of what I wanted to do at the top, but without any actual climbing paraphernalia.

Elbow-to-elbow with colleagues from across Canada and around the world, I was passionate with a clear vision of what I wanted to do— improve population health and address the health impacts of climate change.

I knew that evidence shows that the climate crisis, pollution, and resource depletion are affecting people’s health both directly and as a risk-multiplier of other social inequalities. We are hemorrhaging future health capital by overexploiting the Earth and placing the majority of the burden on the already disadvantaged.

All of this was clear to me as I sat in my chair, looking around at my other colleagues with their own experiences, visions, and “Everests”. But, I had little idea exactly how to translate this passion, dialogue, and evidence into action.  How will we ensure health for all and that no one is left behind? How can we help communities become more resilient to the health impacts of the climate crisis? How can I use my position to advocate for those without sufficient access to social determinants of health like housing and food?

I needed a toolbox, something that would allow me to build pathways for change. That’s where my MPH degree at Dalla Lana came in.

Through my degree, I added a public health “measuring tape” to my toolbox through quantitative and qualitative data analysis classes that help me better measure and understand disparities in health. I was given a “hammer” during my health promotion classes that gave me the skills with which to work alongside and in partnership with communities, both domestically and internationally, to build stronger social networks and support systems.

I gained a “leveller” during program evaluation and my population health intervention classes where I learned how to engage stakeholders, implement population health policies, and advocate for those that are being left behind. My experience in the Collaborative Program for Public Health Policy gave me the “pliers” to pull policies apart and the “screwdrivers” with which to change them. My journalism fellowship, the Certificate in Health Impact, gave me my “flashlight”: The communications tools with which to shine a light on health issues and deepen the public conversation.

Rachel Kirkland

My toolbox allowed me to engage in a spectrum of real-life public health work during my degree, from working with communities across Ontario at the Wellesley Institute to research gaps in the social support system for children and youth as they age in more vulnerable spaces to my role as a junior policy analyst at the Office of International Affairs for the Health Portfolio (OIA) where I help to represent Canada’s domestic interests in the global health arena and drive global health policy development with our international partners.

But, while the program gave me the tools, it was the people I met at Dalla Lana that truly taught me how to use them – who showed me the tool guide. The community of public health professionals that I met was a highlight of my experience at Dalla Lana. I am humbled by the diversity of lived experiences my colleagues brought to the school and their work, and grateful for the chance to learn from them the different ways our toolboxes can be effectively applied.

I have also been guided in the unpacking of my toolbox by those that have come before me. It has been a privilege to receive the mentorship of strong women in public health and global health during my time at Dalla Lana. Erica Di Ruggiero, Ananya Banerjee, Jackie Bender, Paula Braitstein, Sarah Elton and others have given me so much insight into how to use my public health toolkit and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be guided by those whose work I hope to build on.

Equipped with my “tools and guides” as I wrap up my final weeks of my degree, I now know so much more about how I’m going to play a role in improving planetary health, the health of the planet and people. I have a deep sense of responsibility to use my experience to continue the ongoing work to ensure health for all, both here in Canada and around the world.

Through my work now as policy analyst at OIA, and future work in the community development, health policy, and global health spheres, I intend to use all of the tools at my disposal to be an agent of change in improving the health of Canadians and helping to ensure both planetary and human health for future generations.

As I reflect and look around, I know I’m nowhere near the top of Everest. But, with a toolkit from Dalla Lana and an amazing community of public health colleagues, I can’t wait to see the progress we can make.