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Queen Mary University of London and charity Social Action for Health hear from local young adults about their concerns about public health

Quoting the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, Aiza Rahman, 17, of Beal High School, Ilford, proposed a question to the more than 85 people gathered at the Octagon on Queen Mary’s campus on Monday 14 November for an event about the future of community health.

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“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, this is where knowledge is free” Using Tagore’s famous words as a bridge, she then asked the crowd, “We must question why? Why are certain sections of society so reluctant towards scientific research? Imagine the wonders that this type of research could offer our communities, gaining responses for unresolved questions such as what are the chances that your child will develop the same disorder? You could help an inconceivable amount of people by participating in the future – helping the guiltless youth and the retiring generation.”

Aiza was one of more than 30 Year 12 and Year 13 A-level students who participated in ‘Project Cardinal’ a research project with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, facilitated by charity Social Action for Health.

Demonstrating the Centre for Public Engagement’s support for community collaborations and the need to establish an intergenerational and intercultural community dialogue, the event was an opportunity and platform for young people and community members to share their insights, concerns and priorities about community health and discuss these with the wider local community and academics. They also discussed their ‘priority areas’ for public health issues.

Standing by a poster labelled “Drug use and criminalisation,” Shuyeb Mohammed, 18, of Bow, outlined what health priority concerned him the most. He said: “I saw a lack of investment in public health. I wanted to help homeless people.” Pointing at a picture of Bethnal Green Park, he stated: "It is not an appealing place to go. People are drinking alcohol and make the area feel unsafe.” After participating in focus groups to discuss public health concerns with members of the Somali and Bangladeshi communities, he said he felt a broader understanding of the issues and empowered to address them.

Shuyeb was one of a group of young adults, who took part in a summer work experience placement with Social Action for Health, which has partnered for more than 25 years with the University. Through a series of workshops and focus groups, they distilled their findings into 10 health priorities.

Ceri Durham, CEO at Social Action for Health, said: “As a community-based health charity working with people most affected by health inequalities, it’s vital for us to hear directly from our beneficiaries and listen to their priorities. When we noticed that young people were missing from these conversations, we wanted to do something about it. So, we asked local young people what their priorities were and what we could do to address them. Opportunities to gain skills and gain work experience were two themes which repeatedly emerged. We were delighted to offer genuine opportunities to young people, see their skills and confidence develop, and in turn be able to learn so much from their insights. This event is a product of all their hard work and enthusiasm.”

The CPE’s Community Engagement Manager Sarah Gifford said: “We are constantly trying to break the mould, push boundaries and create a mutually beneficial environment where the University’s ground-breaking research, inspiring interdisciplinary teaching, and work can be shaped, shared, and co-created with our local communities as partners.

Students from Queen Mary and Beal High School shared their work on health inequalities and representation in medical, and particularly genetic, research. With support from staff at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Social Action for Health, and their teachers, the students have researched these topics and showcased their work in exhibition-style presentations at the event.

Wolfson Institute for Population Health Senior Lecturer in Global Public Health and Student Experience Lead for Global Health Dr Jennifer Randall said: “The event also showcased Queen Mary students and our research and teaching around building trust in relation to vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic. Our students’ collaboration with the local community was a unique opportunity to extend our classroom. Bringing young people into the research process and building their capacity to work as bridges within local communities was one of our key motivations for the project.

We have found that young people have keen insights into the issues their communities face, as well as powerful solutions to those concerns. Combatting hopelessness through advocacy and activism training is our next step in blurring the boundaries between formal and informal classrooms.”   

“It has been an amazing experience. Our issues and worries are being listened to and we are being heard,” said Zahrah Awan, 17, of Beal High School, who plans to study biochemistry and be a Physician’s Associate.

Beal High School’s Director of Sixth Form Jag Singh said: “It has been an honour and a privilege working with the Social Action for Health team. It has been a great learning curve for our students to interact with industry experts. They have grown in confidence and have developed key skills along the way.  Furthermore, many of them now want to pursue STEM-based degrees. The experience has inspired their next steps.”  

Social Action for Health first contacted Beal High School as part of their outreach work for the Genes & Health research study, one of the world’s largest community-based genetics studies aiming to improve health among people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. Teachers at Beal High School welcomed Social Action for Health into the school to hold Genes & Health recruitment stalls and share lesson plans about health inequalities. Encouraged by student and staff enthusiasm, Social Action for Health returned to Beal with a team from the Wellcome Sanger Institute with an opportunity for students to take part in Project Cardinal, where they developed projects on health inequalities and representation in genetic research.

Beal students Samarah Ali, Jean Bhudia, and Atcheya Thiyagarajah used PowerPoint to design a 7-minute video featuring an avatar of a South Asian woman wearing a sari to encourage ethnic minoritised communities to engage in conversations about genetic research.

Closing her speech to the audience at Monday’s event, Aiza Rahman said: “A society of sheep begets a government of wolves. Now what I mean by this is… we must break all barriers and shatter all norms for an already under-represented minority.

“Sigmund Freud once said: We are slaves of our past. We should not let history manipulate the way we act. Be the voice we need and just imagine what we could achieve together.”

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