PHOENIX – For more than three decades, Jill Guernsey de Zapien has fought to improve public health in underserved communities across the Southwest. She helped start a program in southeastern Arizona to bring better care to rural residents, and farmworkersin particular.
She was inspired by her father, a labor organizer.
Guernsey de Zapien, director of border, transborder and binational public health collaborative research at the University of Arizona, spent time with Cronkite News to discuss her efforts and a program in the colonia of Winchester Heights, north of Willcox, to bring more health care to more people.
What is the Arizona Area Health Education Centers Program (AHEC)?
AHEC has five centers and it has a centralized office here at the University of Arizona. The five centers cover the entire state. … There’s one in Nogales … Yuma … Flagstaff … Globe, and there’s one in Maricopa County. Its purpose is to deal with the maldistribution of health professionals. It’s not saying necessarily that we don’t have enough health professionals, it’s saying that they’re not distributed well.
How does AHEC work?
Each one of those centers works in the elementary schools, high schools, etc. to get kids interested in health professions. … The second prong is here at the university, where we … work with the centers to identify students to go out and do rotations in those areas. … And then the third piece is really (to address) why many health professionals, once they’re in an underserved area, why they leave – because they don’t have access to a community of continuing education. So the role of those centers is really to provide that continuing education and connection for health care professionals once they’re in there.
Why are you passionate about farmworkers’ health care?
My father was a labor organizer. As a child, I was very impacted by the film “Harvest of Shame,” by Edward Murrow. … I learned as a child what was going on in terms of the invisibility of farmworkers. Even as a child, it’s so easy to make the connection and go, `Well, wait a minute. Why don’t we support farmworkers? Why don’t they get a decent wage? Why don’t they have good housing? Because everything I’m eating, I couldn’t make it without them being here.
I had a real sense of the injustice of it. As citizens and people who care about social justice, we cannot be spending the rest of our time on this planet allowing the very people who produce the food and harvest the food that we’re eating not to be recognized and have decent wages, decent living conditions, and all the things that everybody else has the right to.
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