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An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory: Med student encourages community engagement

IMG_0775Right after graduating from Stanford, Steve (Suk) Ko moved to East Palo Alto with some friends who were also recent graduates. They put all their effort into becoming engaged in their new community, starting and running a tutoring program out of their apartment - which could get really crowded, judging by the pictures he showed last week while speaking to undergraduates interested in public health.

Soon after making East Palo Alto his new home, Ko started medical school at Stanford and continued his service work throughout. "We at Stanford are good at thinking and debating, but less good at action," Ko said during this talk. "I felt some guilt about indulging in socioeconomic affluence when there was this community right next door."

Ko's talk was part of the Primary Care, Public Health, and Health Disparities Lecture Series sponsored by Stanford's Center of Excellence in Diversity in Medical Education, which aims to produce leaders who can eliminate national-health inequities. Ko shared his personal experience and offered three points of advice:

1). Never lose what makes you special. 

If you're thinking about how to improve public or global health, "don't fake it - do what you're passionate about." This will lead you in the right direction. As for medical school applications, there are all kinds of ways to have a "research background," he said.

For Ko, a Korean ethic of hard work and his Christian faith enabled his interest, experiences, and goals in public health. During an undergraduate service learning trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, he shadowed an OB/GYN at a public hospital and was moved both by the beauty of birth and the limited opportunities these newborns faced. Born resource poor and in a society with high gender inequality, "this baby girl had not made a single choice, but 99 percent of her life was already decided," Ko said. He wanted to think about health in a broader context.

2). An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.

Last summer, Ko implemented a 5-week summer meal program in East Palo Alto that served kids and their families. The suggestion to focus on food insecurity came from Stanford pediatrician Lisa Chamberlain, MD, Ko's mentor. The YMCA, Stanford Medicine, and Revolution Foods supported the project, which served 270-370 kids and 4-30 adults every day, and provided a total of 2,525 take-home meals. Ko said it's "like pulling teeth" to get kids to eat healthy food, but shaping tastes early is key to forming long-term habits. The team ran both quantitative and qualitative analyses of the program, gathering insights like that families are hungrier in bad weather because those who work outdoors or in construction cannot earn money, and that libraries could be great food distribution points.

One of Ko's most rewarding recent memories was when several of the high-school students he works with made a documentary film about East Palo Alto. They wanted to challenge its unfair portrayal in the news media - although it had the highest homicide rate in the country in 1992, gentrification is now starting to be a bigger problem than crime. "The 90's were a long time ago," the students pointed out.

3). Community engagement is difficult, and therefore a privilege.

It was very hard for Ko to gain the trust of his adult neighbors (he says kids are easy: just smile at them). After living there for years, he felt gratified last week when he was ill and a neighbor brought him soup. Trust comes slowly; you have to prove you're there for the long haul. Even so, circumstances are just hard - what do you do when a student tells you a family member just died from gang violence? Ko coped with the emotional and physical difficulty through his faith and by finding joy in the process, not the outcomes.

One of the audience members asked a question about "white knight syndrome" - the problematic idea that someone from a different community is able (and welcome) to storm in and fix everything. Ko agreed that good intentions can hurt vulnerable people. Temporary involvement doesn't require accountability and invites the community to be jaded and skeptical, focusing on the impact of the last person/organization. For this reason, it can be much better to join an existing project than to start a new one, he said. But above all, Ko favors humility and a sense of wonder, not just going in and"fixing it".

Previously: A quiz on the social determinants of health, Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focus, Med students awarded Schweitzer Fellowships lead health-care programs for underserved youth, Nutrition and fitness programs help East Palo Alto turn the tide on childhood obesity and Doctors tackling child hunger during the summer
Photo, of Steve Ko (right) and Marcella Anthony of Stanford Medicine's Community Outreach, by Andrea Ford


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