Dartmouth Holds Symposium on the ‘Monstrous Octopus’ of Poverty



When the Geisel School of Medicine’s chapter of Physicians for Human Rights began brainstorming about this year’s annual event, which is focused on the theme of poverty and public health, the project developed a life of its own, growing into “A Monstrous Octopus.”

Anna Huh, Geisel ’15, co-chair of the Geisel chapter, says normally the event involves a simple panel discussion or a workshop. But as she began talking with people on campus “there was just a tremendous amount of interest surrounding the ideas of poverty, social inequities, homelessness,” she says.

“So it’s turned into this three-day event encompassing all of campus and seeking to include all community members.”

“A Monstrous Octopus: The Tentacles of Poverty” is an event series that takes its name from a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Laureate speech describing the terrible reach of economic inequity. It begins Thursday, January 31, with a 7 p.m. screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild in the Loew Theater at the Black Family Visual Arts Center, followed by an art show titled “Poverty in the Mind of the Artist.” After the screening, well-known print artist Amos Kennedy will unveil a work created for the symposium.

Friday brings a full day of presentations and breakout sessions that Huh said will explore the questions of “What can I do in the fight to alleviate poverty?” and “What can I do to end human suffering around the world or in my own backyard?”

The people exploring these problems come from all disciplines—sociology, epidemiology, the social sciences, business and government, Huh says. The Nathan Smith Society and the Tuck School of Business’ Center for Business & Society are also sponsors.

Dr. Jim Withers, founder of the Street Medicine Institute through the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, will present the keynote address, “One Bridge to the Next,” at a luncheon Friday, February 1, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in the Life Sciences Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Withers began bringing medical care to Pittsburgh’s homeless population in 1992. Dressed as a homeless man himself, he would seek out men and woman in need of medical services as he walked from encampment to street corner and under bridges—hence the title of his remarks. Withers’ work has become a global movement as more health practitioners respond to the desperate needs in their communities, Huh says.

It was first-year Geisel student Mengyi Zha who suggested Withers come to Dartmouth for the event. Zha is a founder of a student-run free health clinic at the University of Beijing School of Medicine, started in 2010. Zha said she met Withers in Pittsburgh as she and other students were developing the plan for the clinic that became the Sunshine and Love Free Clinic.

“We serve an illiterate, very poor, uneducated population in China, so we didn’t want to use our university name to scare them away,” Zha says. “We wanted something warm and welcoming.”

The current student staff of the Sunshine and Love Free Clinic will guide one of four breakout sessions following Dr. Withers’ keynote remarks.  The other sessions are a discussion of “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Poverty,” which looks at poverty and its effect on health from an anthropological and sociological perspective. Another workshop will link via Skype participants with the founders of Visionarios Peru, an NGO working with a Lima slum community. Participants will develop ideas for confronting issues. And finally, a “Bridges Out of Poverty Workshop” will address issues of poverty and health in the Upper Valley.

Central to the series is the theme that drives Withers’ work, Huh says. “His message is one of compassion and at the same time action.”

For a full schedule of events, visit the “Monstrous Octopus: The Tentacles of Poverty” website.

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