Public Information Officer Gary Black had a chance to go "There and Back Again" recently and, on the way, left his mark on international health.
When Gary Black's son Taylor was in Middle School, they took turns reading JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, which is subtitled "There and Back Again." Black had graduated from college with a BA in English literature and loved sharing books with his children.
Black worked as a health educator at the Mecklenburg County Health Department for 17 years before moving to the County’s Public Information office. While at the Health Department, Black, along with Health Education Program Manager Jon Levin, Public Information Specialist Joe Travis, and Health Department staff, produced and distributed a number of health communication videos.
Many of these works won awards, drew state, national and international attention, and gained endorsements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Public Health Association (APHA). Since it was relatively rare in the early 2000s for a local health department to create high-quality video productions, Blac
k sought out APHA as a way to both highlight the work done in Mecklenburg County and to encourage others to use the emerging digital tools for storytelling.
That search led Black to Amy Hill, a documentarian from San Francisco, and Laura Larsson, a librarian from Seattle. Together they founded the first APHA Film Festival in 2004
. Black has run the festival ever since, collecting work from across the country and beyond to screen at APHA’s annual conference. Billed as “the nation’s first and only film festival devoted to Public Health
,” it has grown from a small affair to a highlight of the APHA Scientific Conference, and attracts top health communication practitioners and noted documentaries every fall. The presence of producers and directors, stimulating panel discussions, and the sheer variety of work makes the festival a destination for many of the conference attendees.
It was during the 10th Annual APHA Film Festival
last fall in Boston that John Ashton, MD, CBE and president of the FPH in Great Britain approached Black and Pamela Luna, DrPH., MEd, co-chair of the Film Festival, and asked for their assistance in kicking off the first ever British Public Health Film Festival. What Ashton saw at the APHA Film Festival were new, imaginative ways to address public health issues.
He also learned how the festival has served to encourage and support a grassroots effort that is growing across the United States, with public health workers, students, and teens creating their own works. He wanted to duplicate that in the UK. Fortunately, the FPH and APHA agreed to fund practically all travel expenses. From December 2013 to June of 2014, Luna and Black held Skype sessions with their new colleagues at Oxford and exchanged a great number of planning emails. During the visit, Luna and Black made presentations at both Oxford and at the FPH’s Annual Conference in Manchester.
The Oxford Film Society presented their Film Festival over three days in the Radcliffe Humanities building and the Phoenix Theatre. Films were shown, discussions held, and Black and Luna did workshops on digital storytelling and children’s health. The attendance was small, but Black reminded the group that the APHA Festival also started small the first year and that they had something to build upon.
The FPH Conference began with a reception held at the Town Hall in Manchester, hosted by Lord Mayor Susan Cooley. Black presented the Lord Mayor a Mecklenburg 250 medallion in thanks for the wonderful reception. This two-day conference, attended by over 400, was held at Manchester University and featured a session that was first presented in Boston at the APHA Film Festival. Dr. Luna, along with a panel of UK experts screened five clips from longer works.
The films, which included a world premiere of a clip from the documentary Hot Girls Wanted, highlighted the role of the Internet and media in the objectification and exploitation of girls and young women and the facilitation and normalizing of pornography. A news report on this session found its way onto the British Medical Journal’s web site
and will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal.
Further international collaboration occurred when Luna and Black were invited to attend a meeting with Joseph Fitchett, MD, at the offices of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) in London. Fitchett heads what will become in 2015 a Global Public Health Film Initiative. The initiative, whose vision had been laid out in an article published in the Lancet in early 2014
, is a partnership between the RSM, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Black and Luna made a well-received case for the APHA Film Festival being considered as one of the satellite screening venues for the Global Initiative, and set in motion further collaboration and sharing of resources.
Black's son Taylor was able to go to England with him and share in the experience. “It was great fun to stroll the campus with my son and visit the classrooms and pubs where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll and others lived and learned,” Black said. They also got to see several of the locations for the Harry Potter films.
Black admits he mentioned to Dr. Ashton during the trip that he felt very lucky to be invited to England to share something he loved and to be given so much in return. Ashton responded, “The harder you work, my friend, the luckier you get.”
“Not too bad for a kid who grew up on a mill hill just one county west of Mecklenburg,” Black added. “The same kid who read many of the great books from that isle earned an opportunity to share his knowledge there, and even taught a class at Oxford. I have truly been there and back again."