Black History 2.0

If looking back to move forward is “Progress 1.0,” what is the relevance of Black History in a multicultural world?

It is estimated that by year 2050, White Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic group in the United States. And, if you live in California, as I do, that is already true for individuals who are less than 18, among whom Latinos now comprised greater than 50% of the population.

Clearly, the cultural landscape of our country is changing and it is becoming more, and not less, culturally diverse. Increasing diversity will present both opportunity and challenge. Meeting this future with humility and understanding will require more than the superficial litany of facts and firsts that has become modern Black History Month. So how do we collectively engage the American story in a way that responds to the burgeoning questions of our time?

To start, let’s ask the difficult questions that Black History may help us answer. Like:

What does it mean to assimilate when the majority culture is comprised of minority populations? Will the concept of “passing” or assuming the cultural identity of the dominant (historically White) culture divide Latinos into white and non-white groups (a distinction our census already supports)? If so, will socioeconomic divisions, political allegiance, or race be the greatest determinant of cultural affiliation?

Is Rosa Park’s influence limited to her seat on the bus? If so, do we ignore the early influence of women of color in cultural movements? How does a woman’s position in society impact her ability to affect cultural change?

What are the commonalities between the US Civil War and the War on Terror? When the language of war is entangled with the language of cultural affiliation, how does that impact our modern understanding of prejudice and patriotism? And, how does that impact a population’s opportunity for upward mobility?

What can understanding the Middle Passage lend to current immigration debates? Does how you arrive matter and ultimately shape your destiny? What suffering is endured for the illusive American dream? And, is it worth it?

How does the color of one’s skin affect one’s health? When medically under-served populations enter the majority, how will that shape our national health policy agenda and our priorities for federal funding of health science research?

As a young pediatrician I certainly do not know the answers to all of these questions. But as a former student of African American Studies, I do know how Black History folds into American History in ways that impact our collective future. In my mind, as many fields, including medicine, seek to re-define their relevance in an evolving world, a world increasingly influenced by the growing presence of brown voices and cultures, Black History Month remains one of the few opportunities to publicly engage issues of race, ethnicity, and culture, and the ways those constructs gain meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, to remain relevant in our future, Black History Month must be rooted in the present. The time to broaden our national lexicon of cultural understanding and make sense of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, is always now.


What an Oreo can Ad to Medicine

OreoHow do you prepare for something that doesn’t exist?

In medicine, what tools will be required to build a better future for providers, patients, and the many advocates who work to make health realized?

Like our predecessors before us, embracing an unknown future will likely require solutions that are part rigorous methodology and part instinctual art. I am confident that the rigorous methodology that makes science unique among fields of scholarship will continue to advance discovery in health and disease management. But how can modern-day physicians and health advocates use the art of our practice to increase health literacy, connect the dots between health and society, and optimize our relationships with complementary fields?

When I saw the Oreo Super Bowl ad, I knew. This is what medicine should be doing. Not pushing sugar sweetened products, but utilizing moments to capture national attention around a singular idea – health.

For those of us interested in the exciting opportunities new technology offers the field of medicine, Oreo taught us that capturing national attention may be as simple as fostering thoughtful application of new media; media that for all said purposes, is free (although the thoughtful application part definitely requires a significant investment…more on that in future posts).

It is clear that consumers are now making decisions in the context of an online network of peers where they collectively share cultural experiences and discuss trending topics in news and popular media. This is an incredible opportunity to key into consumers who are looking for health information, information that data suggests some are using to make health decisions. Interacting with patients on their timetable, moderated by their thoughts and comments, and based on their personal priorities, allows medicine to have a greater impact beyond the confines of our offices and medical centers. And I’m not just talking about e-visits (although this is an interesting and potentially great idea), I’m talking about engaging a national audience in a conversation about health, identifying partners in this work, and aligning all of our interests to reach a common goal – health.

Part of preparation for any unknown outcome is recognizing opportunities to take steps in the right direction. New technology, like that promoted by incubators like Rock Health and thought leaders like Wendy Sue Swanson, MD and Bryan Vartabedian, MD, will definitely define the future of our field; a future that I hope is rooted in simplicity, transparency, and good old customer service.

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The Beyoncé Phenomenon and Eliminating Poverty

I connect to the idea of purpose. The idea that every one of us is here for a reason and has something unique and wonderful to share with the world. It’s ironic that despite this beautiful gift percolating inside of us, there are moments when our daily tasks seem disconnected from our purpose, from the contribution our existence makes to the world. This disconnect is perhaps most pronounced in circumstances of poverty. In some ways, poverty of resources or control can devolve into poverty of purpose. (Others have written on this). What is worse, the very systems that are meant to address poverty, risk re-enforcing this disconnect by failing to invest in people and communities. Some have termed this the institutionalization of poverty.

Now, I am no expert on poverty. But as a pediatrician I am particularly aware of the power present in the vulnerable among us and I do know about investing in people. It is all about recognizing other people’s contribution (or potential). To do so, we must first connect to OUR contribution. Nelson Mandela said it best when he quoted a Marianne Williamson poem saying, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The best (and most vivid) recent example of this is Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime show. When asked about her upcoming performance at the pre-bowl press conference, she simply stated, “This is what I was born to do.” And judging by a performance in which even her strut seemed unapologetic-ally fierce, I think we all believe her. There is something powerful about her being who she is that inspires her fans to excellence as well (Am I being too transparent here?)

Bringing it back to medicine, I think there is a similar reciprocity inherent in works of service – whereby in finding something in ourselves and nurturing it, we can then identify and nurture the gifts of others.

In my mind, understanding and embracing this concept is key to meaningful welfare reform and any hope of eliminating poverty. Yet, sometimes our daily tasks as service providers seems disconnected from our role in empowering people and communities.

Here are 4 simple questions we can use to reflect on our purpose and connect to the people we serve:

1. What are my unique gifts and how do I use my gifts in a way that matters? (Meaning)

2. How can my gifts invite others to share their gifts with the world? (Empower)

3. How can I value the gifts of others at times when they are not aware of them themselves? (Insight)

(And for those of us in the policy world) 4. How can we make this process generational? (Security)

Ultimately, welfare, or providing for the well-being of others, should not simply be about the money we give to families. At its best, it should be about maximizing a community’s opportunity to contribute to society in meaningful ways – ways that empower, provide insight, and create security. Doing so, will require a public investment in education, health, and the economic development of the under-served. But the benefits have the potential to reverberate throughout the rest of society; as the plight of the least of us will continue to define our character as a nation who claims that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Did I just try to connect self-actualization, poverty, health, and Beyoncé? Guess I did.

How have you helped others realize their contribution to the world?