This reflection by Joseph Alli ‘14 is part of the Community Voices: Remembrances series for the BPI Public Health Journal. Through the COVID-19 crisis, BPI is inviting alumni who have lost loved ones to author and post remembrances here on the BPI Blog.
My name is Joseph Alli. In 2010 I enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) while incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility. Over the years I focused my study at BPI on Public Health. After release from Fishkill in 2016, I also became a BPI Public Health Fellow – focusing on expanding community-wide access to Naloxone in NYC neighborhoods facing high rates of opioid overdose and death. Today, I am a Master Health Education and Promotion student at Lehman College.
During those years of study in Public Health, I learned of the vital need for Health Educators in all communities and especially the African American community. The African American community faces alarming health disparities due to the social and environmental determinants of health. When I learned about our community having the highest rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, domestic violence, prostate cancer, incarceration, negative outcomes from breast cancer, and many other key indicators of wellbeing, I almost developed a numbness to the problems. As the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated these disparities, and when the crisis hit close to home, it almost destroyed my will to go on.
On March 31st, 2020 I received a call from my mother and brother that my 82-year-old father, Gerald Alli, passed away due to complications from COVID-19. For years my father suffered from hypertension, gout, and diabetes, but he always seemed to make the best of it, especially with the undying support from my mother.
Born on August 18, 1938, my father was raised by his aunt in Harlem, New York. In order to help around the house, he dropped out of school in the 8th grade and worked odd jobs to bring food home. He told us stories about the different neighborhood gangs at the time, often having to fight to get from one block to the next. When he was shot in the shoulder during a gang dispute, his mother, Helen Lopez, called him to move upstate New York to Sullivan County.
Once upstate, he eventually started working both for a local restaurant named Kaplan’s and doing whatever he could do to make ends meet. One day, he met the love of his life, Mary Hooks, at a penny arcade and they were inseparable until he passed away last week. They married quickly and had four children, myself being the youngest. Due to institutional and overt racism, they found it hard to obtain suitable housing, but they did not give up. Tired of simply working for others, my father bought cleaning equipment and started a business, Alli’s Maintenance Service. He worked as a custodian during the day and for himself at night, doing cleaning contracts for local businesses. He often hired local youth. My mother taught herself to type and started working for Sullivan County Community College as an account clerk.
Through hard work and dedication, they saved enough money to buy land and build their own house, one of the first Black couples in the neighborhood. They raised all four children there and bought a rental property to provide affordable housing for people in the neighborhood. My parents were married for 62 years and strived together to build a legacy as pillars in the Monticello community. But no matter what they have achieved, my father was part of a major at-risk group in this nation. He had all the co-occurring disorders that COVID-19 targets.
Unfortunately, although my father had Medicare, he could not get medical transportation to dialysis when he became infirm. We will never know whether taking a taxicab back and forth to dialysis caused him to become infected with this coronavirus. Or, whether he caught the virus going to church with my mother for the last time. What we do know is that an amazing, hardworking, and dedicated father, husband and man of God has been taken from my family.
Maybe I could have done a little more to explain the information I learned to my father. From this experience, I learned that the work we do as Health Educators does not just apply to the job. Public health must be for our private lives as well. We must be resources to our family, friends, and communities. We might be able to save a loved one’s life.
Joseph Alli ‘14 is Resource Coordinator for the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services NewSTART Program. He earned his associate degree through BPI in 2014. After returning home he completed a bachelor’s degree at Lehman College, where he is currently pursuing a MA in Health Education and Promotion. He was a BPI Public Health Fellow in 2018-19 and earned CASC-T certification from the Center for Urban Community Services.