I’ve learned to dream bigger.
“When I think of my 13-year-old self and the fantasy of getting out of the rural south to go somewhere bigger with more opportunities…to now hold these positions in leadership,” explains Avaion Ruth, “it’s mind blowing!” Ruth is a student in the progressive degree program, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention this May.
Originally from Louisiana, Ruth chose to attend USC because he was interested in an environment where there was a food culture and an activist scene. This was guided by his mission to address food insecurity and his determination to use research as a tool to advocate for vulnerable populations. From early on, he observed the health disparities in his rural hometown. “I began to notice that because of your zip code, skin tone, or socioeconomic status, folks were dying sooner and were experiencing preventable illnesses, that people in other parts of the state were not—and this galvanized me!” he remarks.
At USC, in the ‘Introduction to Public Health’ class with Professor Ricky Bluthenthal, he was excited to have his experience of social and structural determinants of health, articulated in the course. “It wasn’t the intention of the class to talk to me directly, but it was deeply moving to hear someone use language to describe the environment I grew up in. And now, having that academic understanding, I am better able to advocate for my community,” he affirms.
“Avaion possesses a rare combination of passion to improve the world, insight into the key sources of our trouble, and courage to address these troubles” says Bluthenthal. “It has been a pleasure to work with him and see him engage with his peers and the community to address pressing public health changes including the overdose mortality crisis, food insecurity, and other social justice causes.”
Ruth, who is currently working on a biostatistics project in Professor Richard Watanabe’s lab, has had a prolific time in our Department. His first research experience was a qualitative study investigating health outcomes among unhoused populations and people who inject drugs. “Through that work, I was contacted by Harm Reduction Los Angeles and became involved in their efforts to educate the community and establish a harm reduction-centered clinic on Skid Row,” he reveals. Similarly, last September in Leimert Park, “we set up at the BLK HLTH community health festival where we distributed free Narcan and fentanyl testing strips and provided naloxone training.”
His advice on getting involved in social justice work is to figure out what issue is closest to you. “For me it was food insecurity. I noticed there were more McDonalds and Burger Kings around me than fresh fruits and vegetables,” expresses Ruth. Last year, with Vegans of Los Angeles, they started the first vegan food bank in the county—located at Hope on Union.
This summer, Ruth is going to be at Columbia University for a research fellowship. The health equity program provides an opportunity to collaborate with practitioners from around the country. At the end of the program, he will present his research at a CDC showcase. In the fall, he continues at USC pursuing a Master of Public Health, and will be involved in the launch of the vegan food distribution program at the University Religious Center.
“People in my community don’t leave, and so to get here and have these opportunities to address health inequities in South Central, has been incredibly rewarding. I still pinch myself sometimes. But now that I’m here, what’s next is to dream even bigger. These things are possible—you just have to work for it.”