2020 has been a transformative year to say the least. On top of a global pandemic, there has been social and political unrest due to some appalling cases of police brutality against Black Americans once again coming to public attention. It is easy to feel powerless in the midst of such tragedy, especially as a student. As medical students, many of us feel incomplete in our educations and identities, making us reluctant to speak up even when our voices are valuable and necessary. Throughout history, medical students have served as catalysts for social change, suggesting that though we may have much to learn, we should not shy away from difficult conversations or political arenas. Perhaps, some of the most important parts of our training may occur in these settings.
Some of the earliest and most prominent examples of activism amongst health professions students, particularly medical students and interns, can be traced back to a group called the Association for Internes and Medical Students (AIMS) in the 1930s and 1940s . AIMS directed its advocacy towards many causes, including fair labor practices for medical interns and residents, internationalism or strong relationships with other countries (particularly medical students and health systems in other countries), and most notably, anti-racism . Unfortunately, these were radical and even dangerous policy stances, especially in the wake of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. The conversations about fair wages and labor policies, globalism, and strong stance against racism reeked of Communist support through the eyes of the government and the much more conservative medical profession during that time period. Though AIMS was mostly silenced and disbanded by the 1950s, the organization laid the groundwork for social responsibility in medicine and started conversations about critical issues that we are still grappling with today, during a time when it was extremely difficult and uncomfortable to speak up . This organization may no longer exist, but its legacy for activism amongst health students persists. AIMS taught us that activism should not be convenient and that being on the right side of history may come with a cost.
AIMS directly influenced a new movement in the 1960s after a medical student at the University of Southern California had stumbled past old content that had been distributed by AIMS decades ago . This spurred the formation of a new social justice organization called Student Health Organizations (SHO), which formed just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum . With this platform, medical students across the country mobilized in support of the Civil Rights Movement, once again taking strong stances on the right side of history despite their barely formed careers.
In the present day, medical student activism is not only greatly respected but also greatly encouraged. In fact, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY designed a one-month curriculum based on “research-based health activism,” in which medical students would be given the tools to effectively advocate for equitable social and health policies in the United States . Such programs have amplified student voices in the present day, in stark contrast to the silencing of student voices in the 1950s. Now, more than ever, student voices are valued in this world full of tragedy and civil unrest. The question is: what will you do with yours?
Many student organizations have now taken the reigns of activism with the foundation that AIMS and SHO built. Currently, the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) has taken a strong stance on police brutality, describing what many would consider to be a social issue as a public health issue as well . Some organizations have been even more specific with their activism, such as White Coats for Black Lives, an organization that strives to “dismantle racism in medicine and promote the health, well-being, and self-determination of Black and indigenous people, and other people of color” and has many student chapters across the United States . Medical students have also found themselves engaging in other highly political discussions regarding topics such as gun control, nuclear warfare, and climate change. In the wake of the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black individuals at the hands of the police, medical students are once again being called to mobilize and advocate for social change. Going back to a question that we have asked before, how can we use our voices to implement positive change?
Contrary to popular belief, activism is not just spamming social media, even though that could certainly be a wonderful vehicle for activism for those who are comfortable doing this. Activism is having difficult conversations and reaching out to audiences that may be intimidating. Activism is refusing to make police brutality against Black Americans a taboo topic. Activism is making your voice heard to those who do have the power that you do not yet possess to implement change. Thus, activism can take many forms, such as social media posts, conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances in everyday life, protests, letters to representatives, and so much more. Putting activism in a box makes it so much more intimidating and may cause many to shy away from politically charged conversations as a result. Activism should not have to take a specific form, as long as the intention is to educate, advocate for, and ultimately enact positive social change.
The political arena can be emotionally charged. It can be daunting and full of uncertainty. But remember those who came before you. Remember those who came forward during McCarthy’s Reign of Terror. Remember those who protested under similar conditions during the Civil Rights Movement. Let’s try to do them proud.
Addendum: Here are the compiled resources on how to support the Black Lives Matter movement that most of you must have seen floating around social media: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co. If you attend the University of South Florida and are interested in contacting your representatives about any issues you care about, links to email them are below: · Senator Rick Scott: https://www.rickscott.senate.gov/contact_rick · Senator Marco Rubio: https://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact
· Representative Kathy Castor: https://castor.house.gov/contact/contactform.htm
1. Chowkwanyun, M. (2019). The Fall and Rise of Mid-Century Student Health Activism: Political Repression, McCarthyism, and the Association of Internes and Medical Students (1947-1953). Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 74(2): 127-144.
2. Cha, S.S., Ross, J.S., Lurie, P., & Sacajiu, G. (2006). Description of a Research-Based Health Activism Curriculum for Medical Students. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 21(2): 1325-1328.
3. White Coats for Black Lives. (2020, June 22). Homepage. Retrieved from https://whitecoats4blacklives.org.
Picture Credits: Ted Eytans (Wikimedia Common