Lerner Center Director Thomas Dennison
The Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion was established in 2011 to study and combat America’s deadliest killer: Our lifestyles.
Since its founding, the Center has launched projects across campus and in the larger Syracuse community that aim to directly combat these killers, as well as to build models that communities around the globe can replicate.
To learn more about what the Center does and why, Newhouse doctoral student and journalist Greg Munno sat down with Center Director Dr. Tom Dennison for a question and answer session.
Munno’s first question: What is public health promotion?
Dennison: The World Health Organization defines Public Health as “all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole.”
At the Lerner Center, we’re focused on the “promote” part of that equation. We conduct and encourage research and initiatives that focus on communicating best health practices to policy makers, organizations and, especially, individuals, whom we want to empower and encourage to make healthy choices.
Munno: Could you give me some examples?
Dennison: Absolutely. The first series of projects we launched stem from the Monday Campaigns developed by the Center’s namesake, Syracuse University grad Sid Lerner (’53). Sid is a marketing genius who directed the creative team that invented Mr. Whipple and the “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin Campaign.”
After a health scare, Sid decided to devote his talents to selling good health, rather than consumer products. But he used the same concepts and insights from his marketing years: keep it simple, structure messages for a broad audience, have clear calls to actions, and know that you are making a big difference if you can get lots of people to change their behavior even a little bit.
From this starting point, Sid developed Meatless Monday, which encourages people to cut meat out of their diet just one day a week. It’s simple, both as a message and an action. And if enough people do it, it could have a huge impact.
Meatless Monday has been enormously successful. First launched just a decade ago, it is now in more than 23 countries; studies show that a majority of Americans have at least heard of Meatless Monday; and it is constantly cited by media as a driving factor in the growth of “flexitarian” diets, which are diets low in animal fat with lots of fruits and veggies, but without the rigidity of a fully vegan diet, which many people have a hard time contemplating, much less sticking to.
The success of Meatless Monday has led to a host of spinoffs, including Move it Monday and the Monday Mile, which both focus on exercise, and Quit & Stay Quit Monday, which focuses on smoking cessation. There’s others, too, but right there you have public health promotion programs targeting the three big killers.
Munno: The Monday Campaigns, as you said, are global. So what specifically does that have to do with the Lerner Center and Syracuse?
Dennison: What we did, for starters, was to bring the Monday Campaigns to Syracuse in a big way, and to tailor it to the community by engaging the community in the design.
A key to understanding what this involved is understanding that there is no sense in creating a Meatless Monday messaging campaign if there aren’t healthy options for folks to eat, nor does it make sense to create a Move it Monday campaign if people don’t feel like they have access to walking trails, gyms, and the like.
So the first thing we had to do was to build partnerships, on campus and off, with SU’s Food Services and Recreational Services divisions, city and county government, and local hospitals and business.
Now, every dining center on campus promotes Meatless Monday, highlighting their meatless options on Mondays. Recreational Services offers free fitness classes on Monday. Partners throughout the community have helped us install Monday Mile walking trails, with the support of Syracuse City and Onondaga County governments. We team with Onondaga County Parks to offer free fitness classes to older adults on Monday during the summer. We have a wonderful partnership with St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, Crouse Hospital and SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, which all have implemented the Meatless Monday campaign. The chefs at Crouse and St. Joseph’s hospitals have also worked with the Lerner Center to create healthy eating videos featuring vegetarian meals.
So we coordinate, encourage, and support Monday activities throughout the community. But it’s not about us. It has taken off the way it has because it is a great program and because the community embraced it and made Monday its own. This fits perfectly with our broader strategy of collaboration and of listening as much as talking.
Munno: Why Monday?
Dennison: I think Sid, being a Madison Avenue marketing maven, liked the alliteration – it has a good ring to it. And there’s growing evidence that Monday is actually a particularly effective day to do this type of social marketing. As Sid likes to say, Monday is the “January of the week,” a day for fresh starts and positive change.
Munno: I noticed that the Monday Campaigns has its own website for Syracuse, the aptly named Healthy Monday Syracuse, and that there is also a Lerner Center website. Does that mean that the Lerner Center is involved in other initiatives as well?
Dennison: Absolutely, very much so. Mondays are where we wanted to start because the campaigns have so many great promotional materials in place. But from the beginning the vision for the Center has been more than that. Our goal is to become a leader in public health promotion by creating, in partnership with the community, sustainable public health programs whose impacts can be measured and whose structures can be replicated by others.
To that end, we’ve involved with a very ambitious project in collaboration with St. Joseph’s Hospital, Nojaim Brothers Super Market, and the Near West Side Initiative to develop programming for the neighborhood. The Healthy Shopper Rewards Program is a grocery store loyalty program that links primary care and nutrition at the retail level. St. Joseph’s West Side Family Health Center is partnering with Nojaim’s to explore ways in which access to healthy food and clearer nutritional information can influence healthy food choices and make a real difference in the management of chronic disease. The overall goal of this project is to improve the health of the community by enabling and empowering residents to make healthier choices about the food that they eat. The program has everything we love – community input, active partners, and measurable results.
Another ambitious partnership we are involved in is known as the Hill Collaborative. Four institutions on the Hill – SUNY Upstate Medical Center, Syracuse University, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the Veteran’s Administration – each give small grants to collaborators from each institution in various areas. We’re part of a group that has been funded for research and initiatives dealing with diabetes. Our group is conducting a pilot neighborhood survey on the southwest side of Syracuse to see how the physical neighborhood (such as the location of food stores, parks, and other assets) impacts and risk factors for diabetes.
ESF serves as the principal investigator, and the Lerner Center’s Rebecca Bostwick is providing assistance with data management protocols and training. This type of collaboration between the big players on the Hill is rare, and it is very exciting to be part of this type of venture, which everyone would like to see happen more often.
We also fund three Lerner Fellows a year. These are top-students from the Central New York Master of Public Health program whom we put to work on a variety of projects that support good health throughout the community.
We are hiring for a Lerner Center endowed faculty position who specializes in health promotion. We’re very active in promoting workplace wellness on campus at the individual and policy levels. We have a new partnership with the Student Leadership Initiative on campus that involves educating those students on health promotion, working with them to come up with a health promotion project, and supporting them in executing the project on campus. And we designed and hosted a series of public forms as part of a mandated evaluation of the area hospitals called a Community Health Needs Assessments. We have lots of other great stuff in the works, too.
Munno: Before coming to Syracuse University you worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and were a hospital CEO. Currently, you serve on a lot of boards and are very active on campus and in the community. You direct the Maxwell School’s program on Health Services Management and Policy, serve as associate-director of the Central New York Master of Public Health program, are a senior researcher associate at the Center for Policy Research, chair the Onondaga County Health Commission, and advise a whole host of other groups. How does all that fit in to the Lerner Center?
Dennison: It is one of the things that has helped us get off the ground quickly. The Lerner Center is new, but the people behind it are not – we’re full and active members of the University and broader community. The same is true for our administrative director, Rebecca Bostwick, who serves on the board of the United Way of Central New York and has a long history of working with successful research teams on campus. So between us, we have a rich network of professionals well situated throughout the community that we can support and that can support us here at the Lerner Center.
All that doesn’t even touch on the generous gift that established the Center, the advantages of being housed at the nation’s top school for public administration, and the support we have received right up through the chain of command all the way to the Chancellor’s Office. It’s all allowed us to get off to a great start.