Congressman Raul Ruiz speaks about health in the Coachella Valley

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

On Thursday May 5, UCR’s School of Public Policy (SPP) hosted a seminar featuring Congressman Raul Ruiz in the Interdisciplinary South 1128 screening room. Associate dean of the SPP and professor of public policy and political science Karthick Ramakrishnan introduced Ruiz and served as the moderator for the seminar.

Ruiz grew up in Coachella, California as the son of farmworker parents. He graduated magna cum laude from UCLA, and continued on to earn his medical degree, master’s of public policy and master’s of public health from Harvard University. Before being elected in 2012 as the U.S. Representative for the 36th Congressional District, Ruiz served as an emergency-room physician at Eisenhower Medical Center.

Ruiz introduced his guiding mission to bring health equity and social justice to his community and began to explain the changes he brought to the Coachella Valley. “Health equity is defined best … as the … attainment of the highest level of health for all people. It requires the elimination of avoidable health inequalities and health disparities,” Ruiz explained. “Social justice, for our purposes, is the attainment of a just society by challenging inequalities in the social determinants of health, valuing diversity, the right to equitable treatment and human rights and a fair allocation of resources.”

At 17 years old, Ruiz and his family realized that they would not have enough money to send him to college. Ruiz described how the summer before college, he walked around his town to mom-and-pop shops in order to raise money. He would then present to business owners a contract that he had written and explained to them, “I’m offering you an opportunity to invest in your community by investing in my education, because I promise you, I will be a doctor and I will come home to serve the community.”

After completing his education at Harvard, some of the projects that Ruiz pursued in the Coachella Valley included free health education in farmworker trailer parks, the organization of a free flu vaccine campaign that targeted the area’s most vulnerable seniors, assistance in starting a free clinic with Volunteers in Medicine and organization of free health fairs.

To assess the health care barriers that existed in the area, Ruiz conducted six community forums culminating into a summit, which sought to identify health care barriers, what solutions could be implemented and how the community could work together to enact these solutions. Five identified barriers to health care included cost and affordability, lack of health providers, cultural competence and humility, community health education and lack of awareness of existing health care programs in the area.

When Ruiz decided to run for Congress in 2012, many naysayers discouraged his actions by explaining to him that he should first run for smaller elected positions in the city and to wait his turn to run for larger positions. Ruiz responded to this by saying, “I don’t have to ask permission to serve the community.” Ruiz ended up winning the Congressional race, upsetting 14-year incumbent Mary Bono-Mack.

Omar Vaquera, a fourth-year sociology student from Coachella expressed contentment with the congressman’s words, saying, “I wasn’t expecting the down-to-earthness. I wasn’t expecting him to still be this connected … to be this concerned,” Vaquera elaborated. “It was a good expectation to have broken.”

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