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“We need more elected officials who understand the importance of health and policy so we can change conditions for communities to be healthier.”
— Mai Vang, MPH '11
MAI VANG (MPH '11) says the idea of running for public office hadn’t occurred to her when she left her hometown of Sacramento in 2008 to enroll in the Fielding School’s joint MPH/MA in Asian American Studies program. But through her graduate education, Vang — the eldest of 16 children born to Hmong refugee parents from Laos — grew determined to return to make a difference for her community, both from outside and within the political system. Vang was elected to the Sacramento City school board in 2016, and won a November runoff to become a member of the Sacramento City Council, with her swearing in set for Dec. 15. In endorsing Vang’s grassroots candidacy before the primary election in March, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board called her a “powerhouse” and a “change agent.”
A public health education might seem like an unconventional path to take to becoming an elected official. But Vang, along with two other Fielding School alumni who also returned to their hometowns and ran successful campaigns, can think of no better preparation.
“I have friends telling me that my master’s in public health is so critical right now, in a global pandemic,” Vang says. “I tell them that was true even before. What we do every day touches public health. We need more elected officials who understand the importance of health and policy so we can change conditions for communities to be healthier.”
Vang had just finished her undergraduate education and was working in the office of Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton as a Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholar when Norton told her about UCLA’s joint master’s-degree program in public health and Asian American studies. Vang entered the program that fall and quickly knew she had found her calling. “I remember Professor Marjorie Kagawa-Singer explaining that public health is about changing conditions so that people can make healthier choices,” Vang says, referring to one of her FSPH mentors, currently a research professor at the Fielding School and interim director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. “I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’”
Upon returning to Sacramento after completing the program, Vang began working as a policy associate for a nonprofit organization. “I was analyzing health data, and I could see that communities were struggling,” she recalls. “So I started organizing — to ensure our voices were heard and that disenfranchised communities were at the table and involved in the political process.” Vang drew on her education when she co-founded Hmong Innovating Politics: “What I had learned at UCLA is that every policy decision is a public health decision. If we want to change social conditions, our communities need to show up at the polls, put political pressure on elected officials, and/or run for office.”
She continued to organize as a member of the school board, while using her influence as an elected official to recognize the root causes of students’ and families’ struggles and to seek ways to remove barriers to their success — another tenet rooted in her public health and Asian American studies education. Vang says she decided to run for a city council seat only after she knew a parent organizer who would fight for the same principles was poised to replace her. In the March primary Vang captured 47% of the vote in a five-person race; if victorious in November, Vang says, she intends to draw on her public health education to guide her actions on the council. *Vang won the November runoff for Sacramento City Council; her swearing in is set for Dec. 15.
A DESIRE TO BRING a public health perspective to the Woodridge, Illinois, district where her daughter goes to school — and where she once matriculated — led Cricel Molina de Mesa (PhD ’12), a teaching associate professor in DePaul University’s Department of Health Sciences, to run successfully for a seat on the Woodridge School District Board of Education.
Molina de Mesa grew up in the Chicago metropolitan area, raised by parents who were immigrants from the Philippines. “They faced quite a bit of racism living in predominantly white communities,” Molina de Mesa says. “As a result, trying to understand the immigrant experience has always been a driving force for me.”
She attended Loyola University Chicago as a psychology major and had planned to go to medical school, but decided on a different course after a senior-year field project studying a mental health partial hospitalization program for older adults. “That experience changed my life,” Molina de Mesa says. “It raised so many questions for me about where these individuals would go from there, who would take care of them, and who was paying for this. From that point on, I became interested in aging from the standpoint of public health, policy, and advocacy.”
While pursuing her MPH at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a focus on gerontology, she met Steven P. Wallace, FSPH professor of community health sciences, who was conducting research with one of her mentors. Molina de Mesa knew that Wallace, with his policy-oriented expertise in both aging and immigrant health, would make the ideal adviser for her doctoral studies. “The perspective I gained on issues of community advocacy and equity through my time at the Fielding School and my work with Steve Wallace continues to shape what I’m doing today,” she says.
With her husband and daughter, she moved back to her childhood neighborhood of Woodridge. At DePaul, Molina de Mesa’s research focuses on improving the health of aging populations and addressing health disparities. And since being elected to the school board in April 2019, she has focused on issues such as mental health and equity. “My Fielding School education taught me to look at health from a population standpoint and to focus on prevention, and I hope to bring those ideas to the district,” Molina de Mesa says. “It’s a proactive approach to improving the lives of groups, not just individuals.”
She adds: “My public health background shapes pretty much everything I do. In the work I’m doing on the school board, it shapes the questions I ask and the initiatives I am most interested in pursuing.”
“On the school board, [my public health background] shapes the questions I ask and the initiatives I am most interested in pursuing.”
— Cricel Molina de Mesa, MPH '12
IN SANTE FE, NEW MEXICO, JAMIE CASSUTT-SANCHEZ (MPH '14) ran for a seat on the city council in 2019 on a platform steeped in public health, with a slogan she says she took from her FSPH education: All policy is health policy. Her campaign resonated with Santa Fe voters — in a three-way race for an open seat, she captured 57% of the vote.
Cassutt-Sanchez had a long-standing interest in health and wellness, and enrolled in the Fielding School’s MPH program in the Department of Community Health Sciences to pursue her interest in nutrition and childhood obesity prevention. But as she started her coursework, her ambitions took a sharp turn. Whether she was learning about the impact of food policies such as the federal farm bill on rates of obesity in a course taught by FSPH adjunct associate professor Marion Taylor Baer, or about the impact of discriminatory policies such as redlining on the health outcomes of African Americans in a course taught by Chandra Ford, FSPH professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health, Cassutt-Sanchez was taking away the same message.
“People typically associate policymakers with political science and law, but public health is actually a phenomenal background for this position.”
— Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez, MPH '14
“It struck me that some of the basic challenges we have in public health come down to structural racism, poverty, and other factors that need to be addressed at the policy level,” she says. “These larger forces affect the ability of families to have affordable housing, child care, access to healthy food, and so many other things that make a difference in health outcomes. I realized that policy was going to be important for me, and that eventually I would want to look into running for office.”
Her time came several years after graduating with her MPH. Following the birth of Cassutt-Sanchez’s son in August 2018, she and her husband decided to raise him in Santa Fe, where Cassutt-Sanchez had grown up. She had planned to stay home for about a year before seeking a position with the county or state health department. But when one of the city councilors in her district stepped down, Cassutt-Sanchez decided to run for the seat. She made improving the health of the community’s residents the cornerstone of her campaign, and won decisively.
Cassutt-Sanchez believes her public health education gives her an invaluable vantage point for tackling issues of importance to her community. “People typically associate policymakers with political science and law, but public health is actually a phenomenal background for this position,” she says. “I think we would be better off with more public health professionals in policymaking positions.”