Are we (still) making a difference?

October 06, 2014

A question sometimes asked about Community Studies is whether the major is still relevant in the twenty-first century, decades after the program was borne out of the ideals of 1960s era social activism.  Isn’t everyone way too cynical now to believe their efforts can make a difference in the world?  Isn’t everything online, anyway?

Just recently we received a hearty affirmation of the enduring importance of the work Community Studies majors engage in while on their full time field studies, when they are immersed in the work of organizations pursuing varied social justice missions. 

On September 14, 2014, Gilead Sciences, a California based pharmaceutical corporation, agreed to a plan that would make available its Hepatitis C drug Solvadi to lower income nations.  Solvadi is considered a life saving breakthrough but is priced at $1,000 per dose.  A course of treatment with the drug requires roughly 80 doses…do the math and the tragedy becomes obvious:  those most in need of the drug who suffer from HepC—low income earners around the world—are least able to afford it. 

A few days prior to the announcement, I had joined current Community Studies major Maddy Winard at an informational picket outside the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan where meetings were being held among scientists whose research focuses on liver diseases.  The picket line was organized by VOCAL-NY, a New York City organization that builds power among people affected by HIV-AIDS, drug use and mass incarceration so they can create healthy and just communities.  Maddy is in the middle of her six month field study with VOCAL.  The goal of the peaceful picket line was drawing attention to Solvadi’s pricing policy (to passers-by) and enlisting scientists (at the meetings) in the effort to convince Gilead to change it.

It would be stupid and wrong to suggest VOCAL’s informational picket line on that crisp Friday morning caused Gilead’s action just a few days later.  That’s not the claim.  But here’s what is smart and correct:  Community Studies students continue to work on the front lines of the burning issues of our time:  in this case, access to a life saving medicine for those who need but can’t afford it.  The work on field study begins in the classroom, in this case with courses related to public health and urban studies.  The experiential learning on field study complements the classroom and imparts lifelong strategies for intellectual and social justice engagement.