Today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium – Healing the Divide: Bridges to Community Health

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“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is the spirit that suffused not only today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium, but also Dr. Phyllis Meadows’ Health Sciences Keynote lecture, “Healing the Divide: Bridges to Community Health.” After a professionally-focused introduction as a nurse and the Associate Dean for Practice at the School of Public Health, Dr. Meadows honed in on her personal background as a young African American schoolgirl growing up in Detroit during the Civil Rights Movement. Her father had joined the Freedom Marches, and her mother was one of the first black women to integrate a textile factory in the city. She recalled the riots that ensued after King was shot in 1968, contrasting that violent period with the sense of multi-ethnic community togetherness it eventually engendered.

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Developing community-based approaches for outreach and health education, especially in low-income and vulnerable areas both domestically and on an international scale, has been Dr. Meadows’ work for the past 25 years. Describing her experience, she stressed that change occurs on the ground and also emphasized the importance of authentic partnerships, methods of engagement, and strategy building in fostering community progress. “Communities are our windows into the world,” she mentioned, “and our only way to achieve population health. They are not laboratories,” she insisted, but instead places where community members, leaders, and outside learners can be brought together in relationships that allow change to come to fruition.

Steering the lecture towards a health focus, Dr. Meadows implored the audience to “do what is right, not what is popular” in achieving positive health outcomes—which, like community change, also begin with people. For those of us in school, she referred to the fact that professors must educate students towards tangible solutions—and that “it is insufficient to only be able to describe the problem.” Although she stated that of all the “isms”—including racism, sexism, and ageism—elitism is evolving into the most pernicious, we graduate students can funnel our inherent educational elitism into ways that benefit, rather than set back or take advantage of, the community.

Ultimately, all of our professional positions post-SPH will involve communication, and Dr. Meadows urged the importance of upping its quality. “I am convinced after all these years that people don’t know how to talk to each other,” she said. That is our collective challenge, I’ve realized, and based on the standing ovation for Dr. Meadows and the energetic buzz afloat in the audience after the lecture was over, it felt like we were ready to take her insight on board in “doing what is right.”

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