“Who was doing the learning?” asked Lawrence, one of the facilitators from MIT CoLab.
We were reflecting on our first symposium, Community Agency & Health, which CoLab helped to plan and deliver. It was immediately after the event and it quickly became clear that people felt very differently about the experience. For some, it exploited the trials and raw emotions of people of color, while for others it was eye-opening and heart-changing. Indeed, for some, it was one of the most racially diverse events they’d ever been to, while others didn’t consider it very diverse at all, feeling that the same old racial and gendered hierarchies were reproduced in the speakers.
Leigh Carroll (far right) during the Case Examples session with speakers from South Kern, CA, and the Bronx, NY
In that reflection circle, as well as at the event, there were people with very different world views: there were people within and outside of public health; people with lots of economic and political power; people with little economic and political power; people with different perspectives built from navigating the world with different skin colors, sexualities, or genders. In many ways, the group in reflection, those of us that planned and delivered the symposium, mirrored the worlds that we at Bridging Health & Community know need to come together if our health system is to change for the better.
The problem is that it’s hard to work together when we all experience the world so differently, and hence need to learn vastly different things to do our work better.
Opening Ourselves to Learning
So, who is doing the learning at events like ours? In a session about how our failing health system has a disproportionate impact on people of color, those who have never felt the pain of these impacts were benefitting while those who understood the pain all too well were made to live through it again. Or, a session about health care financing might be old news to someone who works in the system but might be immensely helpful to a community organizer looking to fund social justice work.
Table Top Conversations: facilitated discussions informed by the presentations
Often, we don’t even know what it is we need to learn. At one point during the symposium, an audience member asked someone from the public health field (and excuse my paraphrasing), “What is it about people in your profession that makes them feel that they always need to be right? Or in charge of finding the answers?” I don’t think the question was understood at that moment. We weren’t ready to be so introspective. And it was bold – perhaps unprecedented – to ask for introspection from an expert on a stage. I sensed that that many of us didn’t really hear what the question was asking.
I want to ask it again. What is the gap within many of us that we try to fill by being right? What is it about people (like me) who have gone through prestigious education, who have entered career systems with relative ease, who receive much mainstream social affirmation? We know that our approach to health is not working so what is that thing, deep in our souls, that stops us learning from the different people around us, perhaps those without the esteemed accolades or those whose marginality inspires views that many find too radical? What do we need to do to start thawing our hearts to their view of the world?
The Cost of Teaching
Chipping away at the inequities of the US health care system will require everyone to learn. For instance, public health professionals and community organizers alike have incredibly valuable knowledge, all important and necessary pieces of the puzzle. But we need to be aware of how much each group is learning at the expense of the other’s time, emotional energy, and resources. We probably didn’t get this balance right at the symposium.
Focusing on what Bridging Health & Community might do next, perhaps this means hosting smaller gatherings where people from different backgrounds and professions can spend time together, get to know each other, and, in time, teach each other about how they see the world. Perhaps this way, we can help each other connect the dots, the hope being that through this (likely messy) process we can grapple towards opportunities previously unnoticed.
One thing I do know is that the path before us will require a lot of personal learning and introspection, which is a frightening endeavor for many of us – until we’re no longer afraid of being wrong. Or unaffirmed. Or unimportant. Then, with an eye on the people around us – rather than on our egos – we can open up to a truly collective journey.