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The HEALERS

Once an Art Buff, Now a Health Equity Advocate

A lucky opportunity sparks Erin Spangler’s lifelong passion

 

 

“Food is culture, tradition and identity,” says Erin Spangler ’08. “In my role, I see it as my obligation to listen to people’s needs and to support them in making small changes to improve their health, while acknowledging that food is about so much more than sustenance.”

Public health and nutrition are a bit of a long walk from Erin Spangler’s studies in art and digital filmmaking at Chatham, but it was the work she did for her undergraduate tutorial that led Erin to her calling in public health. Currently a Nutrition and Wellness Coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Erin credits her time at Chatham for developing and honing her critical eye—a necessary ingredient for achieving health equity in underserved communities.

“Although I use those skills in a different way now, I credit my ability and interest in listening, observing and asking important questions to what I learned inside and outside of the classroom while at Chatham.”

During her senior year at Chatham, Erin’s advisor Dr. Prajna Paramita Parasher asked her to join a group of physical therapy students and professors on a visit to Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. The students and professors were going to be working alongside local doctors and nurses, and wanted to document the experience. It was this fateful trip that led Erin to redirect her attention towards public health. After completing a short documentary film about lymphatic filariasis—an extremely rare disease also known as elephantiasis—Erin realized that she wanted to find opportunities to support and improve the lives of others.

“It was so inspiring to watch the physical therapists provide relief to the patients they were treating. It took me a long time to figure out how I could be in service to this goal, but I think I ended up in just the right place.”

Erin’s experience in India changed her life. Prior to this trip, Erin had planned to purse a PhD in Art History, focusing on modern American art from 1940-1970. Instead, after graduating from Chatham with a double major in Art History and Digital Media, she went on to complete a Master of Science degree in Nutrition from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. The daughter of a practicing social worker, Erin grew up hearing about community organizing and access to mental health while at the dinner table. It didn’t come to much of a surprise to her family when she turned her focus to working with low-income populations in the emergency food system.

“My mother likes to remind me that as a child I often played ‘restaurant’ using construction paper cut-outs of food and I’d make ‘soup’ with my mother’s kitchen scrapes. Now I write healthy recipes for food pantries as part of my work at the food bank, so there must be something there!”

 
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In the future, Erin would like to pursue a PhD in Public Health to work as an independent researcher in the area of social and health behavior change. Her time working on programs that promote health equity—addressing the causes and differences in health status and healthcare across different populations—have made Erin deeply invested in ensuring that all people have access to services and resources to live a healthy life.

“While my studies at Chatham were not focused on the health sciences, my interest in being an advocate and change agent in the area of health equity was sparked during my time living on Woodland Road!” she says.

During her time at Chatham, Erin was challenged by her professors to read more, go deeper, ask questions, and seek out solutions. Erin feels incredibly fortunate to have received a scholarship from Chatham, and she loved the campus, the small class sizes, and the sense of community that she experienced on her first visit.

“Looking back, I am now very aware that it was a privilege to go to a women’s college. The strong sense of women’s empowerment that was fostered at Chatham is something that I am grateful for everyday. It has made me more aware of disparities of all varieties and has driven me to find ways that I can support causes that address them.”

For those who might be interested in promoting health equity, Erin suggests volunteering at a local food pantry or food bank. They often have a variety of programs which directly address issues of increasing access to healthy food like fresh fruits and vegetables. However, she says, the most important way to become a better advocate of any kind is to be an active and engaged voter.

“Awareness is key, but—more importantly—understanding and having respect for the lives of others and the complexities of those lives. Inequality is caused by systems of power and injustice, which are (in most cases) completely outside of the control of individuals in marginalized populations. Voting for representatives that acknowledge and address these inequalities is critically important because they make funding available for research and interventions, which can better address the social determinants of health.”