Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reflections - Inauguration Day

On November 15, 1953 my father took me to my first Packer football game at the Green Bay City Stadium which served as the home field for the Packers and the East High School Red Devils. The Packers were playing the Detroit Lions. The Packers lost 14 to 7 but that was far from the most memorable thing that happened that day.

In those days, kids got to sit by themselves on the field behind the end zone and got to walk around behind the team benches during the game. As a 7 year old, I was more interested in wandering and witnessing the spectacle of the afternoon than in the actual football game so I spent more time behind the bench than on the end zone grass. It was during that wandering time that I saw Bobby Mann, an offensive end wearing number 87. He was the first African-American that I had ever seen.  

On our walk home from the game I peppered my dad with questions about the football player who didn't look like any of the rest of the players. I particularly wondered why there weren't others like him on the team or in our city and why I didn't see him around town like many of the other players. I remember specifically what my dad said. “He’s a Negro and he comes from Detroit. He’s allowed to live in Green Bay only during the football season. Then he has to leave.  While he’s here, he has to live in a cabin behind Krolls (a restaurant near the edge of town).”  

To me that didn't seem fair. My dad agreed but said, “That’s the way things are right now. Let’s hope that they change in the future. Maybe your generation can do that.”  

Ten years later I was a senior in high school playing football in hand-me-down Packer equipment thanks to the connections of our coach Ted Fritch, a member of the Packer Hall of Fame. At that point, nearly half of the Packers were African-American. After football practice on August 29th, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, I shared my 1953 experience with Coach Fritch. His response was similar to that of my father ten years earlier. “We’ve made a lot of progress (in integrating our society) since then but a whole lot more needs to be done. I’m hoping that your generation will be able to do that.” 

I thought of those two events 60 and 50 years ago as I listened to Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice President Biden and President Obama give his second inaugural address. It was evident that we have made tremendous progress. Probably more than my father or Coach Fritch could have imagined. And it deserves celebration. But still, my mind kept telling me that so much more needs to be done. My emotions were conflicted.  

As I work in public health, my first instinct is to follow Geoffrey Vickers’ definition of public health – “the continual redefining of the unacceptable.” At its core, this is a glass half empty view of the world, especially when our data demonstrate that racial and ethnic disparities are present in all aspects of our society. But today’s events and the reflections that they prompted reminded me that the Vickers perspective is only half of the public health equation. The other half comes from the Institute of Medicine definition of public health – “what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy. “

Sixty years ago my dad knew things weren’t right but he had hopes and dreams that they could be made better – perhaps by my generation. Fifty years ago, my coach knew much more had to be done to achieve racial equality and hoped that the kids he was coaching could help make that happen. Certainly, Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the extent of the problems of inequity in our society but he articulated a dream 50 years ago that still resonates.  

Today, our President, an African-American, articulated a similar message. While noting and celebrating that we have made tremendous progress, he acknowledged that there are still problems and that there is still much to be done. In fact, he noted that the work will never be done. “We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.” He also challenged us to continually work together to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy. “That is our generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.” As I heard those words, I silently hoped that my generation had done its part in setting the stage for those tasks.

Our work, the work of public health and the work toward social justice, will also never be done.  There will always be unacceptable problems and there will always be a need to work to assure health for all. But, as my mother said when she heard of our conversation on the way home from the football game in 1953, “Life can be unfair and unjust but it’s not unchangeable. If you want, you can help change what you saw today. Just remember, to whom much is given, much is expected.”  


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year

Holiday Greetings,

Darkness is the predominant theme in the weeks surrounding the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Almost every culture and every religion throughout history has marked this time of the year with various celebrations or symbols commemorating the movement from darkness to light. (For information on some of the Winter Solstice celebrations throughout the world check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice.) Given my Germanic background, the Christmas tree has been one of the predominant symbols of light in my family at this time of the year. The choosing, cutting, placing, and decorating of the tree have always been surrounded with numerous rituals and traditions. That’s why this year was such a departure from tradition when, for the first time in my life, I put up an “artificial tree.”  

While assembling and decorating the “tree,” I wondered how this change would affect our holiday celebrations. I worried that I might lose some connections to the past. I wished that circumstances hadn't changed so much that an artificial tree was necessary. As I pondered the uncertainty of this holiday season, my musings brought me back to age 8, the first time that I was actively involved in the Christmas tree rituals.  

In many respects, the 1954 Christmas season was like that of any other during my childhood. The four weeks of December had been used by our family as a time for the emotional and spiritual preparation for Christmas, while most of the physical preparations were postponed until Christmas Eve day. During that day the tree had to be trimmed, the house cleaned, the baking done, and our hand-made gifts given last-minute finishing touches.  

One of the things that made this Christmas different was that my dad brought me along on Christmas Eve morning to pick out our Christmas trees - yes TREES! By December 24 most tree lots were nearly empty and trees were almost being given away, so my dad got two for the price of one. I thought this was a pretty good deal until I looked at the trees and saw how scrawny they were. Tears came to my eyes and I whined to my dad that neither one of those trees would be as beautiful as the ones that had graced our living room in previous years.

It was then that my dad confided in me that he always got 2 trees and that they always looked horrible at first. He promised that he would show me how to use some Christmas magic to make one of them look beautiful. When we got home, I received my first lesson in branch transplantation. We took the best looking of the two trees and at every bare spot drilled a hole in the trunk. A branch from the other tree (the donor tree) was then carefully harvested and inserted with surgical precision into one of the holes. After transplanting 4 or 5 branches, our 99 cents tree looked better than the ones in the downtown department store windows. When we brought the tree into the house it received universal acclaim as the best tree ever.  

As we sat around the decorated tree that evening, exchanging our hand-made gifts, my parents were impressed with how we all had transformed plain wood, paper, leather, or clay into beautiful gifts. My mother remarked that “it’s not what you have that matters but rather what you do with what you’ve got.” My dad then looked at me and said, “Yes, even scrawny pine trees can become beautiful Christmas trees, if you use a bit of creativity and imagination. But,” he continued, “it’s not just things that can be transformed. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for transformation. What you do with that opportunity is up to you.”  

That memory of 1954 comforted me as I finished decorating our 2012 Christmas tree. I knew that the holidays would be wonderful even with an “artificial tree” because the season wasn't really about the tree but about the personal moments of the holiday and what we made of them.    

Those distant memories reoccurred again today, New Year’s Eve, as I began to look forward to my 3rd year at MDH. I know that we face lots of public health problems and challenges; and I know that in many respects now, with state and federal deficits and a distrust of government by some, is a dark time for public health and for public employees. However, I also realize that each of these challenges is an opportunity for positive transformation, depending on how we respond to that opportunity. Knowing that I’m part of a great public health team that understands how to collectively take advantage of any opportunity, gives me a sense of optimism as I look forward to another year. You’ve modeled very well in the past how to seize opportunities and I’m confident you’ll continue to do that in the New Year. I’m blessed to be part of a team that knows how to do the best with what we’ve got and how to move forward despite challenging circumstances.  

As we move into the New Year, my resolution is to work with all of you, as a department, to bring the light of public health to Minnesota in a way that transforms the darkness of poor health, missed opportunities, and disparities into a long-lasting season of health for all Minnesotans. 

Happy New Year,