Storytelling and Public Health

Christina R. Hanna, MPH
Wisconsin Population Health Fellow
AIDS/HIV Program, Wisconsin Division of Public Health
Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health
Madison, Wisconsin

I have known for a long time that I was interested in women’s health, specifically reproductive and sexual health. As part of my graduate school experience at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, I was an HIV Test Counselor, a volunteer at the University of Michigan Women’s Health Resource Center,  and completed my summer internship with Planned Parenthood, but I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed so early in my career as the “condoms and birth control” woman. I remained open to engaging in other topics and as I began the Fellowship two years ago was open to learning about other topics in public health. I had the opportunity to explore many other public health topics through networking with staff in the Wisconsin Division of Public Health and through Fellowship Monthly Meetings. While I have discovered new passion for other topics that affect and are affected by health (incarceration, education, and health disparities/social determinants), my brain always leads me back to the question, “How does this affect women and girls?” After two years in the Fellowship, I gained the confidence to own that women’s health is my passion. Beginning to think about the many roles I can play in women’s health is what makes me excited about my future. And while some may still pigeon-hole me as the “condoms and birth control” woman, the story has really opened up for me. I think about the roles I can play in public health, from helping families to have age-appropriate discussions about sex and our bodies, to pre-conception health for young girls, to safe and healthy sexuality and sex, to supporting pregnant women prenatally and during childbirth, as a doula (I’m a newly DONA-trained doula).

The theme of storytelling has kept reappearing for me throughout the Fellowship. I place high value on communication and have paid attention to when storytelling has crossed my path. One of the main projects I worked on during the Fellowship was a qualitative evaluation of a patient navigation program for people living with HIV/AIDS. Throughout the process, I found that I really enjoy qualitative evaluation and I think one of the main reasons was that I love listening to stories. As part of the evaluation, I was able to interview program participants, sit down face-to-face with them, and give them the space to tell their story. Interviewing participants was my favorite part of the evaluation. I think being able to share one’s own experience, and if it’s received positively, can be really empowering and help validate an individual’s experience.

Sharing one’s experience can also be motivating for others. During the 2014 WisconsinWomen’s Health Policy Summit, stories were shared by keynote speakers and in individual conversations. The first keynote, Ms. Bylle Avery, shared her story and the history of working in women’s health, especially her work focusing on black women’s health. Another keynote, Mr. Anton Gunn, shared the power of storytelling with examples from his personal life, as well as his professional work with President Barack Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services. A Summit attendee shared with me her motivation to attend the summit and do her work is to honor the memory of her son who died soon after his birth. Moments from this Summit have also been told as a story to motivate others. One that was repeated numerous times after the Summit was when Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health Executive Director, Sara Finger, demonstrated how simple it is to advocate, by calling Governor Walker’s office during her talk in front of over 250+ summit attendees. That simple action made an impact on a lot of people and that story was shared with many others after the Summit. All of these stories stuck with me, motivate me, and help me to understand what motivates others.  

I have also seen powerful stories told through pictures and video. Photovoice is great tool for public health that can be used to help tell a person’s or a community’s story. Another powerful tool for storytelling is video. The Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health used a video to tell their story and celebrate their 10 year anniversary. The Wisconsin Clearinghouse for Prevention Resources also uses video to help communities tell their stories. No matter how they are told, stories are a powerful way for individuals, communities, and public health professionals to tell the story of the improving health in the places they live.  

To my fellow Fellows, future Fellows, and all other public health practitioners, I challenge you to think about your story and the stories you want others to tell about the important work you will do and the communities you will serve.

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