Ambition to me is tied to what Ngugi wa Thiongo once described as a ‘quest for relevance.’ It is a search for a liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves and to the other selves in the universe. He would go on to suggest that this question depends on the choice of material and the attitude to or interrogation of that material. How we see things, even with our own eyes, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to it. To him, any strong desire to achieve or do something is inherently laced with a language of struggle. And this struggle starts even from the beginning.
Sustaining global health, becoming ambitious with whatever you choose to do in this field is all about taking a leap into the land of struggle. It’s that struggle that ultimately makes you begin wherever you are, do whatever you can, to become part of the generation crazy enough to think they can change the world. I am very ambitious with global health, naming it, sharing it, so that I not only see myself clearly but work with like minded people to make the global more relevant than ever, changing how we all see it too, one story at a time. And yes, it is full of struggles, full of thinking that I can really change the world with fully-funded projects that last. How I am working to mobilize people to embrace these crazy ideas with global health is at the heart of my upcoming talk on Tuesday April 26th. It’s my hope that if you join us, you may learn ways to sustain your crazy ideas with global health, even in the midst of storms.
But know that your straight up sharp, single handled ignorance of my light, whatever you choose to call it, will not provoke this fire burning within.
Not when we are legions.
We are not bent or broken when life insists on us.
To be black, female and invisible in academic spaces. That’s my keep for today. I have always expected it. Audre Lorde warned me about this in her book Sister Outsider. I have even reflected on it in my medium page here. But to go through this experience over and over again makes me angry. Not because I know it’s not fair or that maybe I should be the loudest so that I won’t be invisible but more so because of the price we pay. This experience remains rent-free in my head for awhile. I have gotten it from white counterparts, funders and senior research scientists alike. My take home. Know that your silence will never protect you. As a black, female in academia, keep flourishing in academic spaces with love and light the way too.
Of course the system is designed so you remain behind the scenes. I share this because the one of today is so insidious. Imagine being in a meeting with faculty and fellows and a senior research scientists decides to put all the faculty on the spot. Every single one available is called up except you whom your last name even implies difference. Imagine again too where you are the leader of a group, which means every single planning for the groups meeting should have your blessings and yet, somehow, the meeting agenda is formed without even your Oxford Comma. I don’t mean to brag, but lord knows I am the hardest working, baddest implementation science researcher I know. Some of the things people are talking about today, I have written them as grants and yes failed at them long before they became mainstream. My hard work ethic has no description. I can write a grant in the morning and go to a tennis match in the afternoon with the same vigor as the morning. I literally write academic papers, especially if the results are ready in 1-2 days. Writing is a gift for me. One that I am grateful for the source. So when I get dismissed or undervalued, I keep saying to them, your loss. Like really, your loss. If only you know where I am coming from, if you then add to the fact that I was not meant to be, then you will understand that my presence is a blessing to you and your life. We, all the ancestors that came before me and me, literally bring light to your dark world in every single way you can imagine. So we will not be silent. Just because you think we are invisible. We are legions and like Mary, we are blessed among men and women alike. Keep knowing that which is in us is truly lit for you. And without us, well darkness is all you will know.
Dr. Milton Terris was an outspoken advocate for progressive Public Health Policy. See this article about him here. But briefly, ‘throughout his career, Terris was always an active and dedicated member of American Public Health Association (APHA): he served as secretary of APHA’s Medical Care Section from 1948 to 1952, a member of the section’s council from 1952 to 1959, a member of the APHA Executive Board from 1958 to 1964, and president in 1966 and 1967.’
I came across some of the papers he wrote last month while running through the rabbit hole that is the archives of the American Journal of Public Health. I am a lover of history and nothing fascinates me more than the history of Public Health, the realization that this field is a circle that keeps turning around it’s axis, and in numerous occasions, falling short on its promise. Dr. Milton Terris was speaking about this some 30-50 years ago, hence my obsession today about one article I saw that complied his last words. They are powerful. Very apt for today and for all of us committed to serving the public and not ourselves. To think that all the thoughts in my head about putting the public first has once been echoed in the past makes our field exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Hence why I remain committed to learning the past in hopes that it will allow me and my team to understand better the crisis we find ourselves in today. So allow me to share through verses, the last words of Dr. Milton Terris. I hope they light a fire necessary within you to truly remain committed to serving the public in public health.
For the public, we have remained indefinitely in our ivory towers that have now crumbled all around us and those we serve. We remained without coalitions, a citizens coalition, made up of organized and unorganized workers, farmers, professionals, and other middle class citizens; women, Blacks, Hispanics, youths, senior citizens, and other minorities-in short, the majority of the people of our nation, who can and will assure that the principle that health is a human right, and not a privilege, will be realized for all.
We remained in the era of rampant selfism that served only ourselves and not the public we purport to serve. We remained committed to publications and conferences and not the fullest possible commitment, dedication and leadership to the public who have no access to our publications or conferences. We remained in a siloed pubic health agenda that continues to fail to ensure a peaceful, just, and hopeful society for all. We remained in privilege mode and not in humanity mode that ensures that health is a human right for all the public we serve. We remained in crocodile tears mode too rather than taking serious action to end racism, poverty and everything else working against the public we serve. We remained in lip service mode to prevention rather than advocating in deed and in word for a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health.
We remained on the road to general principles and theoretical frameworks as if they are enough and will get us on the road that requires political will and moral courage to enact legislative measures on health for all the public we serve. We remained in recommendations mode too as if our public health crisis will go away with our evidence based recommendations rather than thoughtful and spirited analysis of the causes of the crisis and the definite and effective action to reduce their impact. We remained with our feet in clay rather than intensify our work on the defense of the public we choose to serve. But above all, we remain a generation whose discoveries are not translated into practice for the welfare of humanity in the shortest possible time, who continue to fail to create a new golden age that centers the public in everything about their health.
The air is full of possibilities these days. Full of grit and full of persistence when you remain rooted in knowledge. The winds are changing too. And when they blow, things will move too. Something about the start of the new school year almost always feels like a cleansing time for me. Time to get rid of old and in with new. Time to change also, for the wind is blowing. It has been a very difficult summer for me and my family. But as I get ready to start my first week of teaching, I am ready to nurture this delicate balance we call life to the fullest, one story at a time. A purposeful quiet is brewing too, potentially making the new school year one filled with possibilities even in distant horizons.
In the spirit of Black History Month, my family and I have been reading about Anna Julia Cooper, the 4th African American woman to earn a doctorate, something she accomplished in 1924. Anna Julia Cooper was as fearless as she was powerful, as sublime as she was effortless in her discussions not only on the plight of black women in general, but the need for women to attain higher education. The professor in me is always alert to women who paved the way for me to call myself a professor. Women like Anna Julia Cooper, with her profound book ‘ A Voice from the South’ which urged black women to not be mute or voiceless, but happily expectant and ready to add our voice to the experiment and experience we call America. One statement she wrote in the book that made me alert is: ‘Woman, Mother, your responsibility is one that might make angels tremble.’ This statement was eloquent then as it is perfect for me today. I look forward to the future always with zeal, knowing that the many words of Anna Julia Cooper will be my guide. Keep her in mind.
I participated in a guided reflection today. My first one ever at a university level system. The Catholic in me was excited given it’s grounding in the Jesuit philosophy. It was what my soul needed. We were told to reflect on the challenges ahead, to think of specific concrete things, it’s origins, told to give our anxieties names, and intentionally take the time to understand where it comes from. We were told to think about the things we find challenging. We were asked to allow ourselves to be rigorously honest to the moment. Then beyond the challenges, we were asked to give time to the hopefulness, to opportunities, to joy, to experiences, including things and places that bring us joy. We were asked to think about concrete specific things that bring us joy and light, to dwell on it, on the stillness of those things, those moment too. We also spent time playing out in our minds what might come when we choose hope. Told to give more energies to those conversations that bring hope, joy. How might we engage in those moments to give more voice to opportunities, and spaces that allow us to thrive even in the midst of challenges. Then we concluded with gratitude on the insights and knowledge we have been given about ourselves, insights that were challenging but hopeful, insights that allowed us to know ourselves more deeply. Gratitude, also for being still in the moment to fully understand ourselves.
This is at the core of who Jesuits are. It is also a commitment to a hopeful realism, one that allows us to come to know ourselves better. Ignatius called it a spiritual exercise. It was all about making sure we exercise our spiritual world however we choose to define it and even as it relates to work. Like I said, my soul truly needed this moment. Keep guided reflections.