Remembering Steve Wing (1952-2016): an inspiration to students, community activists, and public health colleagues

The environmental justice, public health, and other communities are mourning the death of Steve Wing. Dr. Wing was an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. I did not have the privilege of personally knowing Dr. Wing, but I often used his papers in the classroom. His articles on collaborative research projects with communities which were adversely affected by industrial swine operations were exceptional for their intersection of science and social justice (e.g., here, here, here.)

Among those remembering Steve Wing is Dick Clapp, DSc, MPH, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor at U. of Mass.- Lowell.

I remember meeting Steve at the APHA annual meeting in 1986, where he was chairing a roundtable. The topic, as I remember it, was racism and public health and Steve was challenging us in public health to take a stand. He was a 34 year-old firebrand with penetrating eyes and a sharp intellect. He retained those principles and qualities throughout the thirty more years I knew him, and he inspired many more students, community activists, and public health workers along the way. As a guest lecturer on racial disparities in health at B.U. School of Public Health in 2014, Steve talked about hog farms in North Carolina and their health consequences. He showed maps of historical slave-holding counties and current concentration of hog farms, and they overlapped. He continued to teach us right up to his final days.

Marian Naranjo, Director of Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE) told me:

I am so saddened to hear of the passing of my friend and long time colleague, Steve. I know him as an individual with deep caring for people and the world. His spirit was good and pure. The heavens called him home so to be in the unseen world of being in a better place to help continue all that he stood for. His spirit is alive and will dwell in all who knew him.

Craig Slatin, ScD, MPH, Professor of Health Education and Policy at UMass-Lowell and editor of New Solutions recalled Steve Wing’s contribution to a 2014 article for the journal’s section called Voices. The 2014 article featured an interview with Gary Grant and Naeema Muhammed who were leaders of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Grant noted:

“Generally, community folk do not like researchers and we have certainly good grounds on which to stand regarding that opinion, but we had never met anyone like Steve Wing. He has done a lot helping to educate us and helping us change our mentality towards researchers; real people who are concerned about community having access to knowledge and data so that they can fight the battles against the government as well as industries that want to pollute in the communities.”

A remembrance prepared by the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health highlights just some of Steve Wing’s accomplishments. That remembrance offers some of Wing’s own words:

“Ultimately, public health is about changing something. I’ve learned, especially as I began to work with community organizations in North Carolina, that it’s my responsibility not only to publish in scientific journals, but to try to communicate the results to vulnerable people.”

You can hear more of his own words in a 10-minute TEDx Talk. In the 2013 event taped in Manhattan, NY he spoke about the impact of factory farms on community health.

The School’s tribute to Steve Wing includes this from Dean Barbara K. Rimer:

‘His values and integrity were irreproachable.’ Rimer said Wing changed how she saw the world when he took her on a guided tour of several places in eastern North Carolina where large hog farm operators were damaging the environment and people’s health.

‘We met with a large community group in a windowless barn, shared a meal with them and heard their stories. They spoke of Steve with such admiration and affection, and it made me realize what a positive impact he had on people who did not have his means to tell their story. I have never forgotten the experience and look for opportunities to educate people about what is happening. He was an environmental hero, and I am going to miss him deeply.’

Also on The Pump Handle is a tribute written by Jill Johnston who did postdoctoral research with Steve Wing at UNC.

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