Today, I went down to the American Public Health Association conference, which was my first “in-person” conference experience since the Pandemic. It was my first time actually even attending this particular conference because it tends to be $$$, and I was never “researchy” enough as a grad student.
It was also my first time attending a huge public health event, not just as “me,” but as an official staff member of the organization I had always dreamed of working for. That shaped me as a public health professional. With this, and the general state of the world, and events as of late, for some reason, when I headed down the hill, and saw the Denver skyline, and the crystal blue sky, I got an unanticipated lump in my throat. It was like every moment in Denver until now had disappeared. I literally said out loud, “Its like we’re starting over.”
I wasn’t planning on going to the event in person today, but my colleague was facilitating a Youth Town Hall, and I found out (of course…) it was being held at 6 p.m. on a Sunday night, and was NOT being offered virtually. Par for the course, but this meant it was even more important for me to be there. Having worked for over a decade, to make sure youth voices were at the table, even if that table was mostly empty because everyone had already clocked out to drink wine and check their email. I was going to show up.
So I did. It was weird, and overwhelming, and sure as shit that room was half empty when those young people told us their stories and how to be better at valuing lived experience and honoring our emerging leaders as peers. As I sat there, I reflected. Early on in my MCH career I used to watch presentations and feel frustrated because I knew I could GIVE these talks, I had my MPH and would still have “Youth Leader” on my name tag at meetings. Tonight though, I was listening to an incredible group of young professionals saying exactly what I had said for decades. I felt relief. It had stuck. They talked about the experiences they had in Colorado, how accepted they felt being a part of the AMCHP youth advisory board, which didn’t exist when I started my MCH journey.
I relaxed in my old lady cardigan and thanked them for sharing their experience, and asked “how can we do better, as national organizations to truly integrate youth voice into these settings, and as part of the public health conversation, NOT just as panels, and “inspirational speakers, but as an integral part of systems change.” And I stopped talking. And I listened. And guess what? After 15 years, being the expert. I learned. It’s time to close our e-mails and stop acting like we, as “fancy public health professionals” are too busy to hear from those with lived experience. I stayed for the whole session, and was still home on my laptop with a glass of wine by 9. Can you imagine if the whole conference audience had heard what they had to say? Maybe they would start writing it into their state budget for youth to attend conferences. Maybe they would create a mentorship program for their emerging public health professionals. Maybe we would not have to be the “only youth here, who felt completely alone and disempowered.”
Then I scooted home. It was my first time being downtown at night, in almost two years, coming home from anywhere. It was eerie, and sad. When I turned onto the 16th street mall, I looked up and realized I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Walking in front of me was a young couple. The girl had a black hoodie with the hood up, and a denim jacket.
Handwritten on the back, in bold sharpie were the words, “R.I.P. my former self.”
I never saw her face. I didn’t have to. I continued up the hill, past our old offices, past our favorite places, boarded up, the memories trapped inside… and went home. To our new home, our little family. This new life.