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Reflecting on Our Mission as a School of Public Health

Posted on May 30, 2019
graphic with text explaining dornsife's mission

The end of the academic year is a time for reflection, a time to meditate on who we are and hope to be as a school of public health. We are fortunate that our School, from its very origins, has embraced a strong mission and set of values: to work in partnership with others to improve health in our own city, Philadelphia; to promote a view of health as a human right and recognize the critical role of social justice to health; and to train our students in ways that allow them to act on the world in an immediate and transformative way.

This grounding in our own city, in health equity (before it was called that…), and in practice and policy application (before the term “translational research” became so popular ….) characterized our school from the very beginning. It inspired the faculty and staff who founded the School nearly 25 years ago. It is what drew many of us to join our School as students, faculty or staff. It is what keeps us here today. We all see in our School something authentic, special and different.

The three themes that guided the School’s origins remain at the core of our mission statement today: a commitment to improving health in cities, to eliminating health inequities, and to transforming knowledge into practice and policy. 

We focus on health in cities because of our responsibility to our immediate community and to the city we live in. It is our grounding, our history and our home. But we also know that urbanization is a global phenomenon, that we share many things with cities all over the world and that we can partner and learn from each other. We view our focus on health in cities as important to our identity. But our vision of urban health is broad and multifaceted, it is open to and informed by work in communities all over the world whether they are urban or not. Today our faculty and students work here in Philadelphia, in cities across Latin America, and in rural communities in Africa, among many other areas. We see and value the connections and synergism across all of this work.

We focus on promoting health equity because of our moral commitment to health as a human right and because we also know that improving population health is not possible without reducing health inequities. Over 20 years ago, one of the first leaders of our School, Jonathan Mann, wrote eloquently about the social determinants of health and the fundamental role that social justice plays in achieving health for all. He wrote about this in the context of his work on AIDS as the epidemic was emerging. Today our School focuses on many aspects of health equity and health as a human right through our work on the social determinants of health, on the health impacts of racism and discrimination, on the health of workers, the fight against hunger, the right to health care, and many other areas.

And last but not least, we focus on translating the evidence that we have into actions and policies. This desire to use our knowledge and skills to act in the world is fundamental to our mission. It underlies our many partnerships here in Philadelphia but also all over the world, partnerships that we strive to make equitable and mutually beneficial. It underlies our commitment to research that is relevant to policy and practice and to policy that is informed by evidence. We are fortunate to have among our faculty many experienced public health practitioners, and many researchers focused on generating policy relevant evidence. We see evidence and action as two sides of the same coin, as reinforcing and informing each other continuously.

The stories we tell about ourselves are fundamental to our identity. The story of our School weaves together these three themes and three public health challenges: urban health, health equity, and policy translation. But it does so (and this depends on all of us!) in a way that is inclusive and broad, that allows us to have focus but at the same time engages new ideas and new areas. Most importantly we recognize the value of diversity (where we come from, who we are, what we know, what we do, our history) to all of our work, because this diversity is critical to our ability to develop, embrace new things, and achieve our goals. 

I know that we will continue to discuss and debate our mission within and outside our School as we grow, develop and change. Because the vision we have for our School must evolve in response to new realities and priorities. It is never cast in stone but is what we choose to make it together every day. 

I look forward to new conversations in the new academic year but for now, have a great summer!

Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH
Dean and Distinguished Professor, Epidemiology, Dornsife School of Public Health