News Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration

2022 Institute for Public Health Annual Conference puts the “human” in “Health as a Human Right”

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health

Attended by nearly 300 students, faculty, university staff and community partners, the recent Institute for Public Health 15th Annual Conference, “Health as a Human Right” included informative topics and engaging discussions that encouraged calls to action. The conference theme centered on the concept of health as a human right and how health affects the enjoyment of all human rights, whereas a lack of access to human rights can affect our health.

The event kicked off with brief remarks by Vice Provost of Interdisciplinary Initiatives, Mary McKay, PhD (shown above), who gave an overview of WashU’s “Here and Next” strategic plan for the next decade. The plan focuses university efforts on three pillars: Research, people and community. McKay noted public health is a priority. To that end, WashU plans to open a new School of Public Health by 2024, which will “drive equitable, evidence-based public health with a commitment to partnering with the local community, addressing serious underlying inequities, and generating scalable solutions.”

The Larry J. Shapiro Director of the Institute, William G. Powderly, MD (below at podium), presented the organization’s annual list of Top 10 Successes. In the top spot is a major project led by Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration Director, Kim Thuy Seelinger, JD, which includes a multi-national study and practice toolkit on effective and ethical approaches to handling the disclosure of gender-based violence in humanitarian crisis settings. Professor Seelinger then took to the podium with an overview of center projects and publications and set the stage for the conference.


Co-Director of the Global Health Center, Mark Huffman, MD MPH (above), introduced the 2022 keynote speaker, Sofia Gruskin, JD, director of the Institute on Inequalities in Global Health, and a professor of preventative medicine and law at University of Southern California. Gruskin gave a powerful presentation titled, “Health as a Human Right: Global and Local Concerns”, which pointed out that due to the combined impact of COVID-19 and Monkeypox, and the removal of abortion rights in Missouri, we are in a “human rights emergency.”

Keynote speaker, Sophia Gruskin

Public heath…is rarely separable from politics. Human Rights are meant to be equally applicable to everyone, everywhere in the world, across all borders and across all cultures and religions. Fundamentally, human rights are a reflection of the inequalities in our society.

Sofia Gruskin, keynote speaker

To close, Gruskin recommended that we, as a society, should monitor how laws are being used and hold our governments accountable, while also having a sense of what is happening globally. She suggested using what we learn from other countries who have ratified health-related treaties.

A supercharged keynote conversation and Q&A on race, health & human rights followed. The talk featured childhood friends and human rights experts, E. Tendayi Achiume, JD, UCLA professor of law and U.N. Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur (shown on upper row, far left on screen); and, Director of Health for the City of St. Louis, Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, MD MPH (shown below on bottom row, far left.) Moderated by Kim Thuy Seelinger (top row center), the discussion was often an emotionally-charged look at navigating racial disparities and human rights abuses among Black and Brown Americans during various times in history. The speakers cited examples such as those occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, the characterization of abuses as reported by the media, human rights violations within mass incarceration facilities, and abuses among refugees and asylum seekers.

Hlatshwayo Davis reported that since 2021, St. Louis has welcomed 819 refugees from Afghanistan, the Republic of Congo, and Ukraine, among other war-torn areas. To properly serve this evolving population, she noted that having service providers and a governing body that “looks and speaks like these immigrants” is essential.

When it comes to public health, an approach that protects the local environment and its government but does not account for what is happening globally, is shortsighted.

E. Tendayi Achiume, keynote speaker

Achiume illustrated the point above by using the example of Americans wearing clothes made in other countries through unjust labor practices.

The panel on the human right to health as a gateway to other human rights, covered barriers to health care access associated with race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and immigration status and how these barriers impede access to other human rights such as shelter, work, education, civic participation, and body integrity.

Moderated by Leila Sadat, JD, the James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law at WashU, (shown below, top row left, seated at right) the panel included Casa de Salud President & CEO, Diego Abente MS, MBA (shown bottom row below, at left), who talked about how St. Louis immigrants struggle to have access—or  avoid physical and mental health care altogether (thereby creating acute health conditions)—because of expense or because of the limited number of culturally aware providers.

This point resonated with panelist Jeremy Goldbach PhD, (top row center above, on mic) the WUSTL Masters and Johnson Distinguished Professor of Sexual Health and Education, who spoke about the toll on LGBTQ children who experience a lack of culturally aware providers and how formative this is to their health and well-being. Panelist Sherrill Wayland MSW, director of special initiatives at SAGE, (top row above, far right on mic) an organization benefitting older LGBTQ community members, added that 35% of older adults in this community have experienced discrimination in housing.

We need non-discrimination policies in long-term care services. Housing is a human right. Older LGBTQ adults need to know they can find communities where they are safe, and don’t have to re-closet.

Sherrill Wayland, panelist

Panelist, Akila Radhakrishnan JD, president of the Global Justice Center in New York, (shown above, top row left on screen) added that it’s essential to “create the world we want” by looking at what other countries are doing to help guide health as a human right. She points to vocal women’s rights advocates in Asia and Africa who push for abortion rights, which is seen as a fundamental right in other countries, but not, as of late, in the U.S.

The final panel of the day included an exploration of negative health impacts associated with gun violence, discrimination based on gender, race, or indigenous status, or on war and forced displacement. Experts identified specific human rights-based interventions, which can ultimately promote access to individual or community health. Kim Thuy Seelinger moderated.

Lindsay Stark DrPH, MPH, (pictured on top row below, far left on mic) associate dean of global programs and WUSTL professor of public health and social work discussed reintegrating young female victims of war back into their communities and how the greatest human rights violations are happening to women and girls in their own homes in the form of intimate partner violence.

Jessica Mayo JD, co-director of the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project, (seen above at bottom row center on mic) weighed in on how those who experience trauma often do so because of family separation and inhumane migration experiences. She cited that after reaching a new country, it takes immigrants up five to ten years to obtain health benefits. Evan Krauss MSW, (bottom far left on mic) leader of the non-profit, East Side Aligned, which aids East St. Louis youth, expanded on this theme by discussing the causes of trauma incurred by East St. Louis teens on a daily basis through poverty, high-risk of exposure to gun violence and a lack of access to high quality health care.

Pamela Begay PhD, WUSTL associate professor of practice in social work, (top row, far right on mic) pointed out that through the mere acknowledgement of traumatic historical events, we can “be the change that helps heal the physical, spiritual and mental trauma experienced by Native Americans”. Hayelom Kebede Mekonen PhD, (upper row middle, on screen) postdoctoral research fellow in medicine at the University of Maryland talked about the “disappearance of more than 30,000 Ethiopians” due to current conflict in the north and how this has been exacerbated by a state-sanctioned blockade preventing vital medicines and health care from reaching the Ethiopian people. Speakers agreed that awareness and a cultivation of trust are essential in helping and healing these vulnerable populations.

We cannot talk about health care without addressing human rights. Because of today’s discussion, we are forced to think about our roles as individuals and communities.

William G. Powderly, MD, the Larry J. Shapiro Director, Institute for Public Health

The conference closed with Bill Powderly asking the audience to submit calls to action to be shared with others, and suggesting that we all continue the important discussions illuminated at the conference.

Photos: Calls to action on screen (top left), Larry J. Shapiro Director of the Institute, William G. Powderly, MD and new Institute Associate Director Leah Kemper, MPH, (center), Kemper and Director, Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration, Kim Thuy Seelinger (bottom)

*The conference was followed by a poster session reflecting work on public health-related themes. Acknowledgements for Outstanding Poster Presentations go to the following presenters:

Rachel Hackett: Promoting Health Equity with the Best Practices User Guides

Debra D’Arcy: Educating Nursing Students about Cultural Competence

To find out who participated in the poster session, read our poster guide .

To read speaker bios and panel topic summaries, read our Health as a Human Right program book.

See all conference photos courtesy of Tina McGrath,