In a school that prides itself on its tight-knit community, it is fitting that Concord Academy’s only award—the Joan Shaw Herman Award for Distinguished Service—is given out to those who have shown exceptional dedication to service. One of this year’s two recipients, Leslie Davidson ’66, devoted her career to community action. Davidson has been working in Manhattan communities since the 1980s, and currently works as a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Columbia University in the Mailman School of Public Health. When asked about what this service meant to her, Davidson said, “[It meant] going outside the boundaries, committed to improving things for a population, and being innovative.”
Davidson shared that she completed her most meaningful work at the Harlem Hospital of Pediatrics, where she served as the Head of School Health, providing healthcare in 12 schools in Central Harlem. She worked to transform the community and combat the rates of childhood injury in Central Harlem. By transforming rooms in the hospital into community centers, and starting programs for local youth, which included a dance program, a drumming program, and a cycling program, Davidson created tangible, positive change within this community. “That was what I was saying about transforming. It was transforming our hospital into a community-engaged place,” she said.
One of the most impactful projects Davidson worked on in Harlem was the starting of the Harlem Little League. Like the other programs she worked on, the League was established to provide structure to Harlem’s youth. The hospital collaborated with churches and businesses to field teams and even reached out to Yankees General Manager George Steinbrenner to ask for money. Regarding the Yankees legend, Davidson shared, “He maybe gave $10,000. I don’t remember whether he did or not, but he gave enough money to really renovate a park.” With this grant, Davidson and her colleagues focused on investigating playground injuries after smartly consulting the community members.
Davidson explained, “[We] wanted to do gunshot wounds, because we were seeing a rise in gunshot wounds [as] it was the crack epidemic. […] The smart thing we did was to do a consultation with community leaders. […] We did a survey of parents [on] what they thought we should do. The thought we should do playgrounds.” What the team had in mind and what the community members were thinking were related: Drug dealers controlled the playground and when you go on a playground you see crack vials everywhere. Everything was broken; nothing was fixed. The team mapped out playground locations and measured children’s playground injuries. They then remapped some playgrounds and implemented other recreational programs such as dancing, drumming, and cycling. Under this collaboration with the community, as Davidson reasoned, community feedback transformed their project and thus their potential for success.
Davidson suggested that public health research should always be community-centered. She said, “The whole range of social research and epidemiology are population-based. [They] should be informed by the populations they’re serving.” More generally, service in any form should be based on the needs of those in need. Davidson’s work centers around children’s health and CA has cultivated her care for equity as well as her skill in critical thinking and challenging herself to make a change.