2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award: Gail Newel and Mimi Hall
Gail Newel, MD, MPH, FACOG is an obstetrician-gynecologist and public health physician with a drive for justice and equity in healthcare. She has served as a frontline clinician, an educator of future physicians, a public health official, policymaker, and women’s health advocate.
Dr. Newel grew up hearing about the health challenges for the people of California’s Central Valley, where she was raised. She worked in her father’s pediatric practice during every summer of her teen years, accompanying him on daily rounds of his newborns and hospitalized patients. Her mother modeled leadership through service in the community. They raised Dr. Newel in the Mennonite Church, where she developed a strong sense of social justice and servant leadership from an early age.
Dr. Newel attended the University of California, Berkeley for undergraduate work and the University of California, Irvine for medical school before returning home to UCSF Fresno’s Obstetrics and Gynecology Residency Program. Her strong interest in public health led her back to UC Berkeley for her Master of Public Health degree, with an emphasis in maternal child health.
Dr. Newel worked for over 30 years as a direct healthcare provider in private practice, managed care settings, and as clinical faculty in the UCSF Fresno residency program, delivering over 10,000 babies. Throughout that time, she maintained a faculty status with the UCSF training program, where she continues research as a co-investigator with the Preterm Birth Initiative. She served as Fresno County’s first maternal child adolescent health medical director at the Department of Public Health, then as health officer for San Benito County. She began working in her current role with Santa Cruz County in July 2019.
Dr. Newel has been active in policy and advocacy work at the regional, state, and national level, with a special focus on underserved populations of women. Her areas of special interest include public policy and advocacy for health equity, family health, opioid use disorder, reproductive rights, breastfeeding, and LGBTQ healthcare. She has also used her public health expertise internationally, most recently in Africa, serving with a community-based organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mimi Khin Hall was born in Myanmar to parents who were determined to provide a future of freedom for their three children, escaping the decades of military rule, human rights abuses, and violence against ethnic minorities they had endured. As U.S. immigrants, her family held tight to the belief that their uniquely American privileges were also an opportunity to be of service. The values of equity, humanity, and courage were doctrines instilled in her through her parents’ sacrifices and have been the guideposts leading her through many years as a public servant.
Hall began her early public health career in the mid-‘90s, working to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Since 1999, she has worked continuously in California county public health departments. The last 16 years of her public health service have been as the local public health official in a handful of frontier and rural counties, before she joined the County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency in 2018. She served small, under-resourced local county public health departments with limited capacity and infrastructure during an era of the H1N1 pandemic, Ebola, the Affordable Care Act, and California’s rural expansion of managed care for Medicaid beneficiaries.
The fiercely independent and politically conservative nature of rural counties demanded that she work with courage and conviction to bring all voices together for a common goal—better health for everyone. She was driven to do all she could to close the equity gaps in California’s public health system, serving as longtime officer and past president of the County Health Executives Association of California, which provided access to statewide policy and decision-makers. Her love for humanity and the belief that every life matters have driven her relationship-building with other counties and her involvement at the state and national levels to advocate for investments in public health. It has also provided the clarity of purpose that has brought her immense fulfillment and carried her through the difficult days of being a public health official during the pandemic.
Gail Newel’s and Mimi Hall’s Acceptance Remarks and Conferral of the Award by Andrew Solomon
ANDREW SOLOMON: Good evening. It’s rather nice to be on this podium again after a few years and to see all of you.
In today’s America, claims of freedom of speech are often used to justify campaigns of disinformation. This has been obvious in crisis after crisis in American public policy, but nowhere so obviously as in the strange—to many of us utterly bewildering—battle over COVID. We read news stories of people who are dying in ill-equipped hospitals and who say with their final breath, “I cannot be dying of COVID because there is no such thing.” PEN asked that everyone attending this gala in person show a vaccine card, which seemed like mere common sense to most of us who are gathering, many for the first time in two years, in a large room full of strangers. Yet each of us has witnessed how acknowledging the virus has been cast as a priority of the left, while denying its very existence has become a pillar of the right. This conflict goes more squarely than any since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial into how truth must stare down ludicrous fictions based in prejudice, wishful thinking, paranoia, and social irresponsibility.
In such a moment, scientifically-informed health advocates who expected to spend their lives monitoring malpractice, ensuring cleanliness in public facilities, and making sure that hospital computers remain invulnerable to ransomware have found themselves at the white-hot center of an often brutal debate. Saying that COVID is real has been not only contentious, but dangerous. With a remarkable mix of dignity and bravery, Gail Newel and Mimi Hall continued to elucidate the truth about what was happening even as angry deniers tormented them, shouted them down, and endangered their safety and that of their children and families. The social precautions on which they insisted as part of an information-based strategy to contain a disease that has now killed one in 500 Americans undoubtedly saved lives. Furthermore, they helped to establish the protocol used by legions of other public health officials to stare down violent crowds across America. In their hands, simple undertakings such as asking people to wear masks and wash their hands became acts of grace. These two brave women never allowed their rationality to be enslaved by fear.
PEN champions freedom of speech, but we are also champions of truth. The deliberate sowing of dangerous falsehoods is not within the purview of free speech: It is like shouting, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Systematic campaigns, spearheaded in part by the previous presidential administration and amplified on social media, sought to undermine the very idea of truth, to argue against the principle that we all inhabit a common reality where differences of opinion are the fabric of democracy, but malign lies are tools of neo-fascistic social manipulation. In honoring Gail and Mimi, we champion those who do not back down when they encounter “alternative facts” but rather insist on the truth. As he was led to the gallows, Galileo famously said, “And yet it moves.” Gail and Mimi narrowly missed their own gallows, but they never missed an opportunity to defend science, to give humanity a better opportunity during this horrifying pandemic. For the truths they have championed and for the lives they have saved, we are honored to present to them the PEN Courage Award. Thank you.
GAIL NEWEL: Thank you. My name is Gail Newel, and I stand for dignity, equity, and compassion. It’s such an honor to be here tonight, with all of you, receiving the PEN/Benenson Courage Award. To be able to share this award with my colleague and friend Mimi Hall makes it all the more meaningful. Thank you, Mimi. Thank you, too, to my wife Kelli (World’s Best Doctor) and my daughter Madeline, who is here with me tonight, both of whom were by my side during protests at our home and threats to our lives.
I have been a physician for 35 years. My father was a pediatrician, my mother (a poet)—she’s so proud of me to be here tonight—both active in our community, both modeling the importance of service to others as the embodiment of love. Throughout my medical practice, I learned from my patients how to be a better doctor and how to be a better person. I learned that the best health care is informed by science yet driven by compassion, that it is equitable, that it must serve those who are the most disenfranchised and the least powerful.
From an early age, I felt a fierce commitment to social justice and human rights. Perhaps this is rooted in my Mennonite upbringing, but it has certainly been heightened by my experiences as a woman in medicine, as a champion for reproductive rights, as someone who identifies as queer, and now as a public health officer. If there is one thing this pandemic has shown us, it’s that social justice, with an emphasis on antiracism, must be at the root of our efforts moving forward.
I will leave it to others to study the political forces that have brought us to a place where facts and sound public policy are met with anger and denial. What I can tell you is that in the face of that anger, under the threats and vitriol of some of the members of our community, Mimi and I shared a set of values based on honesty, trust, and a recognition of systemic inequality. We both see this award as being for all of the public health workforce—so many of whom operate with this same set of values.
Thank you, PEN America, for recognizing our courage and for amplifying the voice of public health during this unprecedented pandemic. Thank you for all you do to protect and celebrate free expression in the United States and worldwide.
I’d like to close with a quote from one of my own favorite books, Olive Again by the incomparable Elizabeth Strout. In a moment of rare introspection, the stoic Olive Kittridge muses about the meaning of life. Her “best guess about what the human task may ultimately be, in our catastrophic riddle of a world [is to] bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.” Thank you for making that burden immeasurably easier to bear with your recognition tonight. I am forever grateful.
MIMI HALL: Thank you, Gail. It is such a privilege to be receiving this award with you, as you have been a source of strength and inspiration for me and also so many of our colleagues. I echo Gail’s deep appreciation for the attention this award brings in support of the public health workforce. I also owe thanks to my life partner Thom, the love of my life, and our three children, one of whom is with me tonight, Melia. But most of all, I need to thank my parents. It is their courage and their love for humanity that made my life of service possible.
They were parents of three young children living in Myanmar, and they had lived through British rule, military dictatorship, decades of civil war that included human rights abuses and violence against ethnic minorities. They were determined that we were going to have a different life, a future of freedom for me and my brothers. As immigrants, they held tight to the belief that our uniquely American privileges were also an obligation for all of us to be of service. The values of equity, humanity, and courage were doctrines that they instilled in me through their sacrifices, and these have been the guideposts leading me through many years as a public servant. These are also the values that PEN America has staunchly upheld, previously giving awards to Burmese journalists who bravely reported on violent acts against humanity during the rule of the country’s military junta.
My parents’ beliefs in civil and human rights has made my life’s work in public health possible. The challenges of public health work over the last two years of the pandemic haven’t been that much different than the last 20 or 30—protecting the community, especially those most vulnerable in times of crisis, has always [been] demanding. But only recently has it become disruptive and dangerous for health officials as well as our families. Like Gail, I feel we’re here tonight on behalf of every public servant forced to be in this position, certainly just to pursue our duty, which is to protect our communities.
The early steps many of us had to take to protect communities were gut-wrenching. We had phone calls from people saying, “I lost my job,” “I can’t pay my rent,” “I’ve lost my mother and my father,” and it touches us as human beings and the responsibility of life was not lost on us. The collective sacrifices of all of the individuals and all of our communities will be felt for years. The public health measures that we took were informed by science and medicine, but they also brought unprecedented hostility fueled by disinformation and political divisiveness, amplified by social media, and they were extraordinary in their reach and their nature, and they have definitely posed a risk and a danger to our ongoing pandemic response in this nation. Following our duty to save lives has been dangerous and deeply traumatizing for us. We have been under assault, and so have our colleagues, by the very people whose lives we are working to save. But what I have witnessed in Gail and in my fellow local health officials and public servants is that when disaster presents itself, our commitment to humanity only becomes more clear.
The rapid decline in civility during the pandemic, fueled by volatile political discourse, has been accelerated. The current environment attacking science, evidence, and public health officials who are acting in good faith continues to threaten the safety and the health of our nation. Without protection and support, the already scarce supply of qualified public health officials willing to serve in our roles will only decline. The mass exodus of public health officials—whether it’s by force, exhaustion, or fear—has many of us calling this period of time the end of an era.
The environment that exists today threatens lives, but it also threatens the very foundation of American democracy. Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors elected official Zach Friend said to me after a particularly ugly board meeting filled with hateful comments directed at me and Gail, a Latin phrase: “Quis custodiet Ipsos custodus?” or “Who will guard the guards themselves?” Thank you, PEN America, from the bottom of our hearts, for being our guardians.