Erin Manalo-Pedro

Erin Manalo-Pedro, PhD

UCLA Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health
Community Health Sciences

What inspired you to study public health?

My personal struggle to find culturally responsive mental health and substance use resources led me to public health. Roughly 10 years ago, I realized that public health programs existed to prevent poor health outcomes, but these interventions were neither accessible nor effective to address the needs of Filipina/x/os. Since then, I have been committed to creating more equitable conditions for Filipina/x/o Americans and other communities of color.

What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?

As a daughter of immigrants from the Philippines, I thrive creating counter-spaces for students of color to collectively contextualize our education, career opportunities, and health.
In 2012, I cofounded the Lakas Mentorship Program, a grassroots endeavor to bridge the shared struggles and successes of immigrant-origin high school students, college students, and young professionals in the Southern Californian suburbs. As the inaugural director, I developed curricula to combat the continued invisibilization of Filipinos in formal schooling and to cultivate youth’s sense of belonging and self-esteem. At a research conference in May 2021, I co-presented with 5 other Pinays (Filipina Americans) about the impact of Lakas as resistance against gendered racial capitalism. Through critical collaborative autoethnography, we asserted that centering our perspectives as Pinays provided individual healing from historical and contemporary traumas, collective care amidst the isolation of suburban individualism, and epistemological resistance against dominant narratives that deny our agency as knowledge producers. As I shared the transformative power of ethnic studies alongside students from public health, psychology, social work, biology and education, I felt reaffirmed that my work not only changed my life but enabled those who came after me to similarly find healing through community building.
I’ve witnessed the power of centering the experiences of people of color through my involvement with the National Cancer Institute funded Minority Training Program in Cancer Control Research; the Health Resources and Services Administration funded Health Careers Opportunity Program at California State University, Fullerton; the Pilipinx American Public Health Conference; the Filipinx/a/o Community Health Association; the Filipino Well-being Collaborative in Los Angeles County; the Pilipino American Graduate Student Association at UCLA; Students of Color for Public Health at UCLA; the Anti-Colonialism Collective within the Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice, and Health at UCLA; the Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus of the American Public Health Association; the Division of Filipinx Americans in the Asian American Psychological Association; the Orange County and Inland Empire Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society; the Bulosan Center for Filipinx Studies; and the Barkada Pilipinx American Student Association at Cal Poly Pomona. These are all counterspaces. These are all public health.

Everything can be connected to public health. Whether you’re changing your major or changing your career, your lived experiences and transferable skills can be used to improve public health. People find their way to public health at various stages of their education and careers, but certain norms limit people’s ideas of their possible contributions to the field. For example, because of my business background, an admissions officer discouraged me from applying to their MPH program in health behavior. Further, I did not see myself as a researcher because I was not exposed to that career path in a culturally responsive way when I was in college. It was not until I participated in Dr. Marjorie Kagawa-Singer’s Minority Training Program in Cancer Control Research at UCLA that I realized that I could use my unique perspective to conduct research on racial health disparities. Relatedly, although mainstream public health continues to focus on specific health outcomes, several critical scholars prioritize understanding social and structural exposures that affect multiple health outcomes. My advice would be to think creatively to push the boundaries of the discipline.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

Public health needs to focus on understanding the different ideological perspectives that obstruct health justice. Whether we want to address immigrant injustice, anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, sexual and reproductive injustice, income inequality, or climate change, we need to understand the subtle ways that our society dehumanizes and “others” nondominant people. To advance health equity, we need to question prevailing assumptions about what counts as truth and honestly evaluate whether the tools we have been trained to use actually reduce health inequities. I believe that we need to train public health practitioners and researchers to incorporate methodologies like Public Health Critical Race Praxis, tools like Natural Language Processing and autoethnography, and other approaches that help us understand how culture and structure reinforce each other.