Op-Ed: The hunger strike against school closures is also about Oakland

Two Oakland educators began a hunger strike on February 1 with a specific goal: to stop the closure and consolidation of neighborhood schools in black-majority areas. They are putting their bodies and long-term health at risk for the community. I am the doctor coordinating the medical care to ensure these educators, André San-Chez and Moses Omolade, are as safe as possible.

But no one can be very safe in Oakland Plains, a place that accumulates the worst toxic loads in the Bay Area. I hope that the hunger strike will draw attention not only to decisions about specific schools, but also to the larger forces that are pushing blacks and browns into less desirable spaces and to which they are subject highly toxic air pollution from the combination of industry, freeway traffic and idle diesel ships in the Port of Oakland.

ones Postal code is uncannily predictive of a the lifespan of a person. The sum of a lifetime of exposure is called an exposome, and when it comes to chronic inflammatory diseases — which make up the largest portion of the diseases I treat as a UCSF hospital resident — that exposom is more predictable than our genetics. When the exposome around us is toxic—full not only of air pollution, but also of racist police brutality and the aftermath of generational trauma—our immune systems respond with chronic inflammation. For this reason, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and depression – all chronic inflammatory diseases – are affected more common in socially oppressed people.

Oakland illustrates the point. Racist lending practices in neighborhoods highlighted in red, 1930s have real repercussions that continue to this day. Less money has flowed into these communities, so there are fewer parks, fewer trees, and an abundance of sidewalks, leading to this higher temperatures than in well-appointed quarters. Street violence is thriving and healthy food options are hard to come by. It is a prescription for chronic inflammatory diseases and Diseases like COVID-19.

People who live and work in these areas already know this. When I asked San-Chez why they went on a hunger strike to protest the school closures, they replied: “I chose it to show it through my body because when I start to atrophy, so do they communities. I wanted a physical manifestation of what it is like for these black and brown communities that are being sold into.” What happens in the body happens in the world around us, and what happens in the world around us leaves sediment in ours bodies.

The political, social, historical, ecological, and biological are all interwoven, and it’s clear when I watch San-Chez’s eyes sink ever lower as her body mass index dips into the critical zone. By the 20th day without food, the glucose stores in the liver are used up. The body has metabolized fat, and now the muscles – from the arms and legs and even the heart – must keep the levels of glucose in the blood available for the brain to continue its critical functions. In this phase, long-lasting damage from a hunger strike sets in. For the past week, San-Chez has had chest pains.

Losing a neighborhood school is like starvation for a community. The buildings that were once a center of social life are becoming sites of urban decay. Single-parent families, already overburdened, must continue to travel to reassigned schools. Children lose important connections to neighbors, teachers, and administrators who have become confidants invested in their growth.

When California has a budget surplus $20.6 billion unspoken, It’s time to pour resources into those communities that have historically been damaged by decades of divestments. Maintaining neighborhood schools is a start. We must also think bigger to build Exposomes that create the opportunity for health for all.

Rupa Marya is a associate professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and co-authored with Raj Patel of “inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice.”

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