How to Move Mountains

Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. offers lessons in social activism during the 10th anniversary of the Lillian Carter Center


Slideshow key

1. Fuld Fellows Brandon Johnson, Jodie Simms, Danielle Lungelow, Laura Ellis Hilb, and Jodie Simms learned firsthand about social activism from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. during the 10th anniversary of the Lillian Carter Center for Global Health & Social Responsibility.

2. Lillian Carter 

3. Lillian Carter Center leaders Kathryn Kite (left) and Martha Rogers (right) with Kennedy and Dean Linda McCauley.

4. Kennedy signs one of his books at Glenn Auditorium. 

5-8. Kennedy leads a forum with nursing students (photo 5 & 6) and discusses Our Environmental Destiny (7 & 8) in a packed Glenn Auditorium.

See more photos on Flickr.

Emory nursing students now know firsthand what makes environmental lawyer and author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. a force for change. He doesn't ever STOP.

His energy and drive were evident as he spoke to nursing students and faculty during the 10th anniversary celebration of the Lillian Carter Center for Global Health & Social Responsibility. The night before, he had stayed up all hours on a business call to the Middle East before catching an early morning flight from New York to Atlanta. "There was lots of yelling," Kennedy joked to explain his hoarseness.

A strained voice didn't deter him from describing his experiences as a social activist or his admiration for Lillian Carter, the center's namesake. He met the former nurse and Peace Corps volunteer in 1978, when he and his Harvard roommate showed up on her doorstep in Plains, Georgia. They hoped that she and her son, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, could stop the execution of his roommate's father, the deposed president of Pakistan. Sadly, their efforts proved unsuccessful.

 "Lillian Carter was very kind to me personally," Kennedy told nursing students last fall. "I am happy to be in a place that bears her name."

It was October 15, 2001, when President Carter dedicated the center named for his late mother, who died in 1983 at age 85. While she and her husband Earl raised their young family near Plains, Miss Lillian worked as a registered nurse, caring equally for patients regardless of race in the days before integration. Upon joining the Peace Corps in 1966 at age 67, she was assigned to India, where she worked as a family planner and nurse in a clinic 30 miles from Mumbai. There she encountered leprosy and other forms of human suffering unlike any she had ever seen.

"Miss Lillian was known for her work as a public health nurse and advocate for social justice and health care," says Linda McCauley, dean of the School of Nursing. "The Lillian Carter Center has stayed true to her vision of caring for those in need."

The center's creation marked the realization of a dream shared by two former deans. Ada Fort planted the seed for a global nursing center by convincing health, business, faith, and community leaders to form the International Nursing Services Association (INSA) as an independent organization in 1972. Among INSA's first board members was Miss Lillian, who lent her insight as a Peace Corps volunteer. Today, INSA operates as Global Health Action, led by former Emory nursing instructor Robin Davis 76MN. When Marla Salmon became dean in 1999, she envisioned what became the Lillian Carter Center with a focus on nursing leadership, research, and social responsibility.

A decade later, nursing students and faculty follow in Miss Lillian's footsteps in a number of ways. They work with underserved populations in the Caribbean during winter break, assess the health of migrant farmworker families in South Georgia each June, and work with homeless populations and provide care to senior citizens in Atlanta throughout the year. Last summer, students partnered with Cabin Creek Health System in the coal-mining region of West Virginia. In Florida, the Dominican Republic, and Africa, faculty and student researchers seek to improve the health of women, new mothers, and babies. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, nursing leaders collaborate with Emory faculty to build and sustain the health workforce.

"I'm so impressed by the commitment of this school," said Kennedy during the 10th anniversary celebration.

In addition to his forum with nursing students, the Lillian Carter Center hosted a reception and public lecture given by Kennedy. It also sponsored the Second Annual International Scholars Day—featuring the work of students in Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and India—and the "Lillian," a new event honoring the nursing school's 50-plus community partners. All play a vital role in service-learning, which is integral to the nursing school's undergraduate and graduate curriculum.

"Our partners allow students to apply experience to their academic development while giving back to the community," says Martha Rogers MD, director of the Lillian Carter Center. "Our students help address needs that otherwise go unmet."

Last fall, Laura Ellis Hilb 10MPH 13N helped teach stress reduction to clients in the health recovery program at Gateway Center, which serves Atlanta's homeless population. Hilb is one of the nursing school's Fuld Fellows, second-career nursing students with a special interest in social responsibility and at-risk populations.

"I met clients at Gateway with amazing skills, talents, and stories," she says. "My time there was a reminder that the homeless are people like us but whose health problems greatly influence their financial situation."

Hilb attended the forum with Kennedy to learn more about the role nurses can play in protecting health by preserving the environment.

"Nurses must stay knowledgeable about current global issues and political climates because they greatly influence our work," Hilb says. "We have a responsibility to speak out against activities that contribute to illnesses in our patients."

How to be a social activist

Kennedy—inspired by his late father, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and his late uncle, U.S. President John F. Kennedy— felt the call to protect the environment as a young boy. Now the environmental lawyer leads the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network that protects the world's waterways. In 2010, named him as one of its "Heroes for the Planet" for aiding restoration of New York's Hudson River.

For Kennedy, the pollution of water and air is far worse than most crimes. Asthma attacks in children, including three of his sons, are triggered by ozone and power plant emissions. "The air is being stolen from my children's lungs," he told nursing students. "That's theft."

Consider also the pregnant woman who eats fish caught in water contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, now banned in the manufacture of multiple products). When the daughter she bears enters school, the youngster can't read as easily as her classmates because her brain was damaged in the womb by PCBs.

"Imagine the humiliation of a girl who can't read in class," Kennedy said. "The damage to her self-esteem is worse than robbing a bank. If we want to meet our obligation to our families, communities, and our health, we've got to protect assets that belong to the people."

The week after his visit, Emory students viewed The Last Mountain, an award-winning documentary that chronicles the fight of West Virginians to halt coal strip mining in their community. Kennedy is featured, along with residents who describe the health risks posed by the mining practice of mountaintop removal. The film premiered in southern West Virginia last June, the night before nursing students arrived to work with patients served by Cabin Creek Health System.

The film and Kennedy's visit to Emory demonstrated what it takes to move mountains to protect the environment. Because nurses see firsthand how the environment impacts health, he noted, they can play critical roles in debates about the health and future of the country.

"Get involved in the political process," Kennedy urged nursing students. "The only thing that can save our environment is democracy."—Pam Auchmutey

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