Leslie Kantor discusses her role in public health, sex education
Leslie Kantor is no stranger to public health. The current inaugural chair of the new Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health, Kantor has served in many roles with non-profit organizations.
She was previously the director for community advocacy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, and also the vice president of education for Planned Parenthood.
She first became involved with public health as a transfer student at Barnard College, which was starting an AIDS task force when she came.
“... I showed up because I was new and this was the only thing going on. Someone from administration said ‘Oh I don’t think (AIDS) is going to be a problem for our girls,’ and I was very upset about that,” she said.
In response, Kantor ended up developing one of the first AIDS peer education programs that focused on women. This initiative allowed her to continue doing related work. She said she went on to intern for Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was an early champion for HIV/AIDS.
“Pick your extracurricular activities wisely because you will probably end up doing that for the rest of your life. You definitely want to think about these things as where you’re getting a lot of your early professional experience,” she said.
She said public health is about trying to prevent illness for the entire population, and is responsible for issues such as air quality, vaccinations and preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
A public health issue that has been at the forefront of her career is sex education. When she later worked for Planned Parenthood, she created a text and chat program that connected more than a million young people to health educators. Kantor wanted the resource to especially reach low-income minority groups, which she said required extra time and research.
Regarding the new Netflix show “Sex Education,” she said she loved it and that it opens up a bigger discussion on media’s impact on public health.
“I think the media can be friend or foe for sex education. Like '16 and Pregnant,' 'Sex Education' might be able to impact awareness. But we would need to do research to figure that out,” she said.
Having spent 20 years living in New Jersey, Kantor said her experiences and commitments to social justice, as well as her love for teaching, pushed her to take on her position at Rutgers School of Public Health.
Public health is the fourth-most popular major at Rutgers, which Kantor attributes to college students’ commitment to social and economic justice. She advises students who hope to go beyond public health in the classroom to also advocate for their values.
The department also offers an accelerated program where students interested in obtaining a master's of public health can begin taking courses at the Rutgers School of Public Health early in their undergraduate years. There are also summer programs in Tanzania and Greece that focus on environmental health and migration, respectively.
“There are many public policy issues going on right now that affect public health. Students can very easily get on notification lists for organizations whose issues they care about,” she said. “In New Jersey, we have pretty pro-public health representation in Congress, but it still matters to them that their constituents care about a certain issue.”
The department at Rutgers is currently trying to create a new model for urban public health, she said. It offers master's in public health programs including the nation’s first concentration in LGBTQ+ public health. The department also wants to attract young people from New Jersey’s urban areas.
“We really believe the leadership in New Jersey in public health needs to reflect the communities that it serves and be more diverse,” she said.
As inaugural chair of the department, Kantor expects some challenges. She said she has to find a balance between learning about the institution and getting policies moving. With “proud mom” in her Twitter bio, she also has to manage her time with her children.
“You know, I had a very wise woman say to me once that trying to balance things perfectly is just another way that women have learned to beat up on themselves,” Kantor said. “I think the key to it all is that you have to take care of yourself.”
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