Building Healthy Communities

The College of Pharmacy’s Assistant Professor Oscar Garza addresses critical health inequities using a framework of social justice and University-Community partnerships. He is building healthy communities by promoting economic, social, cultural, historical, and institutional equity.

As founding director of the PRAXIS Institute for Community Health Education, Garza seeks to restructure power dynamics between the University and the communities it serves, recognizing external stakeholders as critical partners in institutional research and teaching missions. “The University’s responsibility is to acknowledge our communities as co-innovators, co-producers, co-learners, and co-owners in the process,” said Garza. PRAXIS also facilitates a Grand Challenges course called Structural Violence and the Medication Experience, which incorporates workshops led by community members to bridge the gap between academia and reality.

In 2015, Garza became a Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) for an Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine grant called “Global is Local: Creating, Piloting, and Evaluating a Community-Engaged Learning and Service Rotation with Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers in Rural Minnesota.” The grant reflects a partnership between the College of Pharmacy, Medical School, School of Dentistry, Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, and various community organizations and clinics to build a service-learning course where students work alongside community members in mobile health care units in underserved agricultural communities throughout Minnesota. “We want to tap the richness of the knowledge and potential within our diverse populations and work to increase their capacity to serve the community while providing meaningful experiences for our students,” said Garza.

He is also Co-PI of a grant entitled “Keeping our Food Supply Healthy: A Pilot Evaluation of Health Care Access and Bilateral Community Health Education for the Rural Latino Agricultural Worker in Minnesota.” A significant aspect of the grant program partners University student mentors from a variety of health disciplines with youth from underserved rural communities in order to build a pipeline to health-related professions. Mentors share knowledge about navigating undergraduate, graduate, and health professional education, and often represent less visible health professions, like pharmacy, public health, and dental therapy.

A tenure-track faculty member, Garza sometimes sacrifices career incentives in favor of impactful community-based work. “A lot of time is spent not just building new relationships, but essentially healing broken ones. That work is important, but unfortunately it’s not quantifiable. When we neglect that process, the product we hoped for will invariably be compromised,” he said.

Garza believes that the key to achieving the greatest impact is in shifting institutional paradigms. “We need to dismantle this idea of the medical-industrial complex, and stop running our healthcare institutions as businesses while saying they are patient-centered. If we truly want to move to patient-centered care, then we must recognize healthcare institutions as social enterprises with a responsibility of contributing to the broader health of the community.” From Garza’s perspective, that requires the need to constantly reexamine the systems that perpetuate inequity, engage in critical and often uncomfortable conversations, and nurture connections with the communities the University serves.