Monday, 13 November 2017

Public health, social justice, and the role of embedded research

Posted by Mandy Cheetham, Fuse Post doctoral Research Associate and embedded researcher with Gateshead Council Public Health Team

On this date (13 November) in 1967, Martin Luther King was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The speech he gave at the award ceremony is both powerful and moving. It was the last public speech he made outside the US before his assassination in April 1968. You can read it for yourself here or watch it here.


Newcastle was the only UK University to award an honorary degree to Dr King in his lifetime. In accepting the honour, he said “you give me renewed courage and vigour to carry on in the struggle to make peace and justice a reality for all men and women all over the world”. As I listened to the speech, it struck me that the three “urgent and indeed great problems” of racism, poverty and war, which Dr King described in his speech, are just as relevant today as they were then. It made me reflect on our role in universities now and on my role as an embedded researcher in Gateshead Council.

That's me on the left
On Sunday 29 October, I had the privilege of being part of the Freedom City 2017 celebrations held on the Tyne Bridge to mark this significant anniversary, inspire people, and stimulate academic debate about potential solutions. Performances across Newcastle and Gateshead came together to mark different civil rights struggles across the globe, including Selma, Alabama 1965, Amritsar, India 1919, Sharpeville, South Africa 1960, Peterloo, Manchester 1819, and the Jarrow March, Tyneside 1936.

The celebrations were timely, as I am just finishing an embedded research project in Gateshead, undertaken less than a mile from where we stood on the Tyne Bridge. It has been an inspiring year. I’ve learnt a lot, but I have also seen the devastating effects of austerity and poverty on North East families and communities. The research findings demonstrate all too clearly the continuing impact of the social injustices which Martin Luther King talked about fifty years ago.

I believe our role as writers and researchers in public health is not just to highlight the effects of these grave injustices, but to be part of the solutions, developed with the communities affected. If we accept that we are all caught up in what Dr King described as “an inescapable network of mutuality”, then universities have an important part to play in changing attitudes, working with others, facilitating connections, and inspiring efforts to “speed up the day when all over the world justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. (Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Speech on Receipt of the Honorary Degree, November 13, 1967).

I believe embedded research affords us valuable opportunities, to work alongside local communities with colleagues in public health and voluntary sector organisations, to challenge injustices and push for the kinds of social and political change advocated by Dr King.


Photo credits:
  1. Martin Luther King Honorary Degree Ceremony: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/congregations/honorary/martinlutherking/. Courtesy of Newcastle University.
  2. Photo by Bernadette Hobby of "the judge", representing the establishment, about to receive the Jarrow Marchers petition. The judge was made by Richard Broderick sculptor.
  3. Freedom on the Tyne, The Pageant: http://freedomcity2017.com/freedom-city-2017/freedom-city-tyne/. Courtesy of Newcastle University.

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