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Podcast Transcript: Panel Discussion

Elizabeth Cohen: Good morning and welcome. My name is Elizabeth Cohen and I am a medical correspondent with CNN Television and I am proud and honored to be the MC of this event today.

Elizabeth Cohen: And we are going to hear from young people who have done just that, and they will take their places up here as I understand it. These are folks who have made a real difference in their own communities. Let me introduce the first person, Gyawu Mahama, is, lives in Washington DC and is an undergraduate student at George Washington University. He's a double major in International Affairs and Global Public Health with a concentration on International Development Studies. He's an active member on that-in the GW chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign which is partnered with student health organizations to offer free oral HIV testing on the GW campus. And he believes that learning facts about HIV and AIDS will empower individuals to take actions that will make a difference. And here's a quote from him: "It's important to make people listen to you and I think that students have been an integral part of instigating change."

Elizabeth Cohen: And our second student, is Dr. Michael Tees and along with his fellow student Molly Dahlgren, he co-founded the Tulane University chapter of the Student Physicians for Social Justice during his first year of medical school in 2004 in New Orleans. And the group educates students and the local community about environmental health issues in New Orleans. They organize lectures and film screenings, they contact government representatives about local environmental hazards, and they develop community health programs. And after hurricane Katrina, the organization took part in Project Re-Leaf, planting trees in areas of New Orleans devastated by Katrina. Here's a quote from him: "If we work toward a healthy world, we could maximize the lives of not only our human species but all others." Terrific, glad to see you coming up here, great, welcome.

Elizabeth Cohen: Our third student today is Tanyaporn Wansom, who as a member of the American Medical Student Association helped to raise awareness among medical students about vital health issues. She's trained future physicians to educate local middle school and high school students in their communities about HIV/AIDS. And participates in events such as calls to congressmen and congresswomen to educate funding for AIDS relief in Africa. And her quote: "For me, it has always been important to figure out how I can use my experiences and strengths to find the best way I can contribute to the fight for global health justice." Welcome.

Elizabeth Cohen: We have two brothers next, Niko and Theo Milonopoulos of Palo Alto, California. And they founded Kids Voice LA and Vox Populi after a series of shootings in their North Hollywood neighborhood. They encourage young people to get involved in the prevention of gun violence, have led marches and rallies, and have testified at legislative hearings. In 2007 the Los Angeles city council unanimously approved a bill that they drafted which requires that gun dealers post warning labels on storefronts and sales receipts highlighting the risks of having a gun in the home. They say: "Working with parents and siblings who have lost their children, brothers or sisters to gun violence has been by far our proudest accomplishment." Thank you both and welcome.

Elizabeth Cohen: We now have about 15 minutes for Questions and Answers and I've actually been given some questions that I will ask of folks. Let's start-if each of you wants to give a sort of a short answer to this: How and when did you become interested in doing something for public health? How did it start? Was it years ago or was it something that you just woke up one morning and decided to do? Why don't, we'll sort of start on this end and go out.

Tanyaporn Wansom: So for me, I feel like probably many of you can identify with this. I never wanted to do anything my parents told me to do, which also included going to medical school right after college. So I was like, no, not gonna do that. So after college I was very involved in global health issues there, but I decided to go to Thailand, which is where my parents immigrated from and do something about HIV/AIDS. I actually recommend all of you, if you're interested to hear more about Ryan White, my mom bought me his autobiography; it was really powerful. I read it when I was in middle school. So that's an aside, but, it was really inspiring and it made me want to learn more about AIDS and AIDS was also at the time devastating Thailand and my parent's communities, and they didn't, you know, they didn't want to talk about it, they were like, "Oh why do you want to go back to Thailand" and you know, "We tried to leave that place to come here so you could stay here and go to medical school," obviously. [laughter] But after I was in Thailand, I started being really involved. I became an HIV testing councilor, so I was in the community testing people for HIV/AIDS and telling them their diagnosis. I was 21 at the time and told many people who were my age that they were positive and a lot of them had had risk behaviors that were really similar to the risk behaviors that I and my friends had in college and I thought, you know what? That, the person I'm telling that has HIV, that could have been me. Or it could be me, it could be anybody. And so I think that, you know was the difference for me is to realize that, even maybe if it's not your reality, it's somebody else's reality and we're all living in, you know, this world together. So I think that's really important to realize how connected we all are.

Gyawu Mahama: Hi Everybody. When I started my undergraduate education I was kind of lost and I didn't really know what exactly, what sort of community that I wanted to get involved with. And I was actually just walking by a table one day and some students were talking about the Student Global AIDS Campaign and some of the things that they do and I was just really interested in the types of students that were involved in the organization. They all seemed really passionate. They all seemed like people that had interests outside of just the university setting and so I encourage you all, I know that I'm not that much older than all of you in the crowd so, as you start your college careers and start your college search I encourage you to just like look for alternative organizations. Because I started to learn more about my community, I found out that in the city where I go to school, Washington DC, 1 in 20 people has HIV/AIDS. And after I learned that statistic I just got really interested in learning why that situation was that way and why more people didn't know about it. And so it became very much something I was interested in on a personal level and an academic level and so it's always great when you can combine those two things.

Michael Tees: Hi, my name is Mike. And for me, I can't really pinpoint the first time that I, let's say I got involved in environmental activities. But I do know when I was younger I remember crying every time I saw trees getting knocked down so another strip mall could be put in. My Mom told me that story a couple days ago. Sorta like, hmm. [Laughter] But, I do know that it was a passion that I've always had and went I went to undergrad at University of Florida, for a school with 50,000 students, I walked in there and realized that there wasn't anybody there representing the students who were involved in environmental issues. There was no recycling going on, a major tract of land that was over 50 acres where over 4000 students had nature classes and grew their own plants was basically being given away to developers. And so me and a couple of friends kind of banded together and we found the problem and we fixed it. And I think that's kind of the theme in this entire group of people up here, is that we all kind of had-we were angry about something, and we had passion about something and I'm pretty sure everybody in this room has been angered by something and probably has a little bit of passion behind it to do something about it. So I think, while we all have different topics in what we do, we all have that common theme. And I think anybody can do it if they have the will power.

Elizabeth Cohen: That's great, thank you. That question came from Kathleen Crilly, who was in the audience somewhere, Kathleen raise your hand. There you go, thank you for that question. Thank you, thank you. Mallory Fitzgerald has a question that Dr. Wansom sort of answered for her part. Her question is: "Did any individual person inspire you to do what you did today? And I was, I was glad to hear that the book that you read about Ryan White and now you're sitting three people way from his mom, so that's wonderful. Let's again go down starting from here. If you want to talk, if there wasn't anyone, that's OK, but if there was, let's hear about that.

Theo Milonopoulos: Well, one of the things that we've mentioned in our segment of the exhibit is how powerful the stories are of the parents, the siblings of victims of gun violence and how powerful their stories have been in terms of inspiring us. I remember my twin brother and I were only 11 years old when we first started doing our work and we befriended a mother of a, of, who had lost her son to gun violence. Evan Foster was 7 years old when he had gone to pick up a soccer trophy at his local park. And two gang members came up to their car and opened fire. Killed Evan, left his brother blind, and Evan basically died in his mother's arms. And for us, to see his mother transform that grief into activism and trying to make a difference to prevent these things from happenning, was really inspiring. I mean, there's always an effort to try and find, you know to offer a reward to try and find, to find a killer or-but there needs to be more steps in terms of prevention and she's been a very strong advocate for that.

Niko Milonopoulos: For me, like my brother, a lot of the stories of victims and their families are inspiring. Recently in Los Angeles, Jamel Shaw, who's 17 years old, he was-his parents had done everything right. He was getting recruited to play football for many top universities in the country. And one day, he was just walking down his street, right in front of his house, he was coming home from school. His parents had done everything right, his father constantly talks about the 18 year plan he had where they moved out of a bad neighborhood and they were going to make sure that he has the best educational opportunities and he was shot right in front of his house. And his father ran out, outside, when he heard the shootings and saw his, his son die in front of his eyes. And these are just devastating, heart-wrenching stories that unfortunately happen too often. So those are the ones that really inspire us and get us going.

Tanyaporn Wansom: Really quickly, I want to just say, the people who inspire me as well, as Dr. Geiger mentioned, is like if you find a community of people who believe in this or have the same value system you do, I think individual activists that I've marched with, that I've planned actions with, you know, the people sitting next to you, those should be your inspiration. If you see something, like your classmate for example, makes a comment that's really not cool, it's racist, it's sexist, it's you know, something bad about people with AIDS, I think those are like the true everyday heroes and I think that all of you can do that. I'm sure all of you in your everyday life, somebody says something that's not cool or somebody's talking about somebody behind their back that's like maybe... you know something about it or maybe they shouldn't, that's none of their business, you saying something, you know like the people who stood up for Ryan when he came to school, that's all of you out there. I'm sure there's all kind of crazy stuff going down in your high school, there was when I was in high school anyway, but you know, you can make a difference in your community just by speaking up for people who can't.

Gyawu Mahama: I think you're spot on, it's so true. And it's important for you just to be conscious of the things that you say and make sure that you always treat people the way that you want to be treated. And I think that when I look at inspirations in my life, my mom has always been somebody that has been very much the type of person that's fought for people that don't have you know, as much power and don't necessarily have the voice to speak for themselves. When I was 16 she gave me the opportunity to go to Ghana where she's from and you know, I'd never known any of my relatives in Ghana and being able to go to Africa and not only just learn about my heritage but also to just see some of the scourges of public health, to see stagnant water where mosquitoes breed and where malaria starts to be an issue, to see the lack of sanitation that people have that causes, that make cholera such a pugnacious issue for people in the developing world and so, yeah, those were just issues in my life, or experiences in my life that encouraged me to pursue public health as a career.

Michael Tees: So again for me, I'm echoing everybody in this group so far, but it really is the people at ground level who have inspired me throughout my involvement and activities. Especially people who, like for example, there was a mother whose son had asthma because they lived right next to a petrochemical facility, refining facility that was just spewing out tons of toxins and she banded together with her community and fought against the large company and they won and got moved for free. And so it's people like that that I think are more of the inspiration. People like Ryan White that really put a face and put a name to what they're doing. And I think it's-we just kind of follow your heart and that's where our inspiration lies.

Elizabeth Cohen: Thank you. And that question again was from Mallory Fitzgerald. Mallory are ya out there? Yay, that was a great question. Thank you. Why don't we open up questions now for the audience. If you raise your hand I'll call on you for anyone who is sitting up here. Go ahead, don't be shy, I know someone must have a question. Go ahead, right there. [Inaudible]

Elizabeth Cohen: And why don't you stand, um, if you can press your microphone on, I think there's a button there. There you go.

Student: Wait, should I stand up?

Elizabeth Cohen: No you're OK actually, you're fine.

Student: OK, I would like to say to Ms. White, "God bless you so much." Your son and you showed all of us that we can do anything in this world or fight for anything in this world. And this is not the only time I heard of your son, my friend actually told me about him. And your story really inspires all of us. So, thank you so much. [Applause]

Elizabeth Cohen: Thank you. Let's see, I saw you first so go ahead. Yeah and turn the microphone on.

Student: This question is, I guess, more towards Niko and Theo. Do you guys... Did you guys make an area called Kids Voice LA? And, like, what is it, it's like an area for kids? And was it difficult to make and is that what you guys planned on doing when you got started?

Theo Milonopoulos: Well, Kids Voice LA is an organization that we started, just of kids that were our age that got really interested in addressing this issue. We started off as just, you know, a group of kids that wanted to circulate petitions and talked about this issue that grew into this group that would go down and testify before our legislators and tell them, you know, what kind of change we wanted to see and propose bills. So I think, what our story shows is just trying, finding that hook and that passion, at an early age. Don't assume that because you're a young person that you don't have any expertise that you can take to any of these legislators. You're the ones that are in the communities, you're the ones that are sitting in these classrooms, you're the ones that have the knowledge about what's going on in your neighborhoods and your parks, you have a specialized knowledge that you can take to these legislators to make a difference. And so I really encourage you to start, even now, to start thinking about how-to identify problems and how you can attempt to solve them.

Niko Milonopoulos: And one more thing, when we had originally started we were 11 years old, so we had no idea what we were doing. We had-what we started out with originally was to do a kids petition on trying to ban the sale of ammunition in the city of Los Angeles. And from that time, I could have never imagined that it would not only have continued on to this point but that it would have ended up looking like what it looks like. You know, I consider it just a series of accidents. I don't know how or why someone introduced a piece of legislation when we were 12 about banning the sale of ammunition, but it happened. I don't know why it passed certain committees that it did but it happened. And I don't know why it didn't pass the full city council, I thought that they should have, but... And then after facing that difficulty, we then tailor our message and change what- reoriented ourselves. So that's definitely something that's necessary, is flexibility, 'cuz you don't know where things are going to end up leading.

Elizabeth Cohen: You know, something was just said that made me think of something, about you, you're in your classrooms, you're in your communities and I remember when I was in public health school, there are highly trained professional who spend years and years and years and lots of brain time trying to figure out what young people need and what's going on in your heads and what's going on in your communities. You know. You know what needs to be done and you are not too young to do it.

Elizabeth Cohen: Am I right that we need to conclude? You tell me. One more question, all right. We can do one more question. Ok, the young lady back there...blue sweatshirt...you're looking at each other...you choose. One of the two of you. Ok there you go.

Student: If you could change your career would you?

Elizabeth Cohen: Golly. [laughter] Well, you all have careers, right, sort of, yeah. OK, if you have a career go ahead and answer that question. Go ahead doctor.

Michael Tees: Well, I actually am graduating med school in a month, so technically I'm not a doctor yet. But I never planned on going to medical school. So, it's something that kind of fell into place for me. It was kind of my direction where I thought I could make the biggest difference. So, I would say that, to my parents, they don't think-I'm the first person in my family to go into medicine and they don't actually think I'm going to be doing that my entire life and maybe I won't but it doesn't mean I have to do that.. I don't think that...nothing in life is permanent, so I would say that if I wanted to change my profession, cool.

Jeanne White-Ginder: I think that, you know, all I ever wanted to be was a mom. But if you'd asked me in grade school, I think I would have wanted to be a teacher. But, I don't know, I think being a teacher or maybe having more children. I think my best thing in my life is being a mom. So, I like just being mom.

Elizabeth Cohen: There's no just in that. [laughter] You say, "Just being a mom." It's not "just."

Dr. Victoria Cargill: When I went to medical school I was convinced I was going to be just like Marcus Welby, probably has no clue, but that was a very popular TV show, a family doctor who solved all these crises. And I saw myself doing that. And if people see my black bag, which I have, it's the original black bag, I was fortunate, because I graduated very young, I went to medical school and actually got my MD at the age of 24. And I've been, I'm much older than that now, and I still have that bag so some of my patients are like, "God, that looks like it came from the dark ages." [laughter] But what a change from being somebody who's going to be the Marcus Welby of my inner city community to, OK, I'm going to be doing colon cancer to now, for over 20 years, since the beginning of this epidemic, I've done AIDS. And I would never have predicted that but I'm sure that it was something that was set aside for me. A crisis during my internship where I acquired hepatitis and was treated worse than a dog by my own fellow residents gave me a unique insight into how people with HIV felt. And I remember because I actually heard them talking outside my room saying they weren't sure if they should discharge me or keep me because either way I was going to die from a needle stick so which would look best. And I can remember thinking, "If I ever get up out of this bed, till the day I die, nobody will have food thrown on the floor and shoved under a curtain at them because people were afraid of hepatitis." And here's where I am. [applause]

Dr. Jack Geiger: What Dr. Cargill has just said illustrates another meaning of that question. You don't have to change your profession to change your career. Most of the people up here have been changing their careers their whole life; their whole adolescent and adult life and they're just beginning. As long as whatever you do, and you're free to change your profession, but even within one profession, as long as you stay alive to the problems that affect whole populations in our society, and in other parts of the globe around the world and keep seizing the moment and seizing the opportunity to do something about it you'll be making all the change you need to do for the rest of your life. [applause]


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