Dear CUNY SPH Faculty, Students, and Colleagues:
When I met with my senior staff at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and our school’s advisors earlier this year to plan for commencement, we quickly decided our central focus should be New York women who have provided leadership and inspiration for those who want to make a difference in public health. Women make up 73 percent of our students and 60 percent of our faculty at SPH, so we believed it was particularly important to motivate and provide models for women committed to careers in our vital field. With our invited guests, we celebrate the importance of our school to the city and of all the people who choose to contribute to our field, but especially the talent and energy that the women in our student body and faculty bring to this school.
For our honorary doctor of science in public health degree, we have selected Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of New York City, who is an instrumental leader in ThriveNYC, the most comprehensive mental health program in the nation. With its special emphasis on cultural awareness and inter-generational efficacy, ThriveNYC will help thousands of New Yorkers address long-ignored mental health needs. Our own Healthy CUNY initiative has partnered with ThriveNYC to help CUNY students across the entire city address their challenges and succeed in earning their degrees.
Our other major award, the CUNY SPH Champion of Public Health citation, will be presented this year to Dr. Mary Bassett, Commissioner of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr. Bassett has been able to influence the department’s focus on health equity and transcultural and racial awareness, both through structural changes within the department and programmatic changes in neighborhoods and communities in the city.
The commencement address will be given by Ms. Linda Sarsour, a leader who has been successful as a community organizer, recognized by national leaders, and who has emphasized women’s health issues in the New York area.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ms. Sarsour is a lifetime New Yorker, and has studied at both Kingsborough Community College and Brooklyn College. Ms. Sarsour has long been engaged in public health efforts. These include her work with New York State’s Project Liberty program, a federally-funded public health initiative following 9/11 that provided important support for mental health treatment for residents who suffered from the stress of the tragic attacks. She focused on the services for the Arab American community. In addition, Ms. Sarsour’s organization, the Arab-American Association of New York, was given a grant last year to support specialized mental health care for the South Brooklyn Arab American community.
Her other community activities have provided support for a number of groups. Ms. Sarsour supported an effort by a Muslim group to raise funds that were donated to repair a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, that was vandalized in February, 2017, in an apparent anti-Semitic attack. She also supported a program that raised funds to help rebuild black churches in Charleston, S.C., that were burned following the tragic shootings there.
Ms. Sarsour was a co-organizer of the National Women’s March in January. In 2012, she was designated a Champion of Change by President Barack Obama. As noted on the White House website, “Linda’s strengths are in the areas of community development, youth empowerment, community organizing, civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy,” all important determinants of the health of our nation.
Time magazine recently named Ms. Sarsour one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2017 because of her work in organizing the National Women’s March. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wrote, “It was a joyful day of clarity and a lightning bolt of awakening for so many women and men who demanded to be heard … and it happened because four extraordinary women—Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour—had the courage to take on something big, important and urgent, and never gave up… The images of Jan. 21, 2017, show a diverse, dynamic America—striving for equality for all. ”
Fortune magazine also included Ms. Sarsour and her National Women’s March co-organizers on their list of 2017’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders.
I hope you all join me in my firm view that a diversity of viewpoints and an open exchange of ideas is at the heart of our country’s strength, and our university’s strength. It is why we at CUNY are so committed to academic freedom, a bedrock principle of our university.
This will be a very special and meaningful commencement for all of us. I hope to see you all there to celebrate women in leadership.
Ayman El-Mohandes, MBBCh, MD, MPH
Dean, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy