These are loud and disturbing days in our body politic. How will we find our way? For some of us, the answer is to get off the internet and back on the road again. Everything we hope for is already happening but we must listen carefully to how some of our most deeply troubled communities are finding their way against stiff headwinds and cold currents.
That impulse resulted in our first Stakeholder Health Road Trip last November driving a Winnebago on the long road between San Diego and Wilmington, North Carolina. We called that our See2See (get it?). We’ll do this again on November 17 on a more humble 1,657-mile loop around what the native tribes called the Inland Sea:
- Up from Winston-Salem following the New River to Huntington, West Virginia where those people never give up and always find a way.
- Up to Columbus and Cleveland, the epicenter intriguing experiments in mobilizing the assets of their community guided by serious public health logic.
- Then across Ohio through Dayton,which invented flight and reinvents hope amid the most modern of shocks.
- On to Indianapolis and Bloomington where one of the most interesting blending of public and faith-based health organizations is crossing the sidewalk into amazing new partnerships across the state.
- Down to Nashville, with Joe Webb, the brave CEO of Nash General who was also the CEO at Methodist South at the birth of the Congregational Health Network. Joe did his doctoral dissertation on mobilizing community networks for health so he sees the long picture.
- Home again to our little city below the Blue Ridge which invented the tobacco industry and is still paying the cancer price. Home keeps us humble and hungry for learning.
- Note: these dates and places may be slightly adjusted.
A called bluff
Last year’s 3,200-mile drive resulted from a called-bluff: “We could drive a Winnebago across the country, stop in any town large enough to think about a Starbucks and find something already in motion as smart and effective as anything on the national panels at big national meetings being held in fancy hotels.” This turns out to be true!
Those of us in health fields need to focus on following what is happening in our communities rather than compelling it the neighborhoods to comply with our computerized schemes. So we’ll follow our same learning rules for class on the road: a) no microphones or powerpoints b) no meeting in a hotel or hospital and c) never more than 20 people (unless in worship) and d) stay long enough for the learning to emerge. Instead of 15-minute power-point capsules, we had 28 conversations with grown-ups talking about how they were giving away their precious time and talent for the places and people they loved.
We learned that nobody in a real community is waiting for any big hospital or foundation to ride to their rescue. Normal people do not expect that anyone nationally will care with more passion or intelligence than they do themselves. To paraphrase Sweet Honey in the Rock, “they are the ones they’ve been waiting for.” They’re not waiting. By the time we made it to Wilmington, we were illuminated, inspired and humbled.
The raw creativity was amazingly practical. Produce Good turned an obvious and overlooked asset—backyard fruit trees—into tens of thousands of pounds of food for the poor (and built community muscles, too). Three Precious Miracles has reached thousands Native American foster kids and strengthened their tribal identity. San Manuel Gateway College has simply reinvented health education for medical students and community health workers and everyone in between.
We want more, partly because we were alsosurprised at what we did nothear. Riding across three thousand miles of red-states, we expected political fire and fury. Instead, we heard lots of local boundary-crossing, work-it-out kind of organizing with a very long view. Riding another red-state loop, now amid impeachment, will that still be true?
Why not zero carbon?
Second, even though we left amid the horror of the Paradise fire and ended in the epic Hurricane aftermath of Wilmington,we heard almost nothingabout the melting planet. As a grandfather, minister and health professional, that turned me into a pescatarian (veggies and only things that swim). I’ma regular on Amtrak now. Buying solar for our home and planning bees for next spring. But I knowthat personal behavior is symbolicif I don’t find out how to lend my full leadership energy toward the greatest health risk of all. We have to move our healthcare institutions away from our massive environmental cost. Most of us are now zero smoking. Why not zero carbon? So we’re driving a Prius, not aWinnebago.
The learners of Stakeholder Health are always tuned to the wind of the Spirit visible in the movement among grown-ups giving their life to others. We are mostly people of faith, but know that religion is often weaponized to feed our worst behavior. On the other hand, we are never surprised to see how often plain ol’American faith inspires organized tenacious generosity. All our institutions were founded by people working in even more difficult circumstances with a lot less money and science. They built institutions of amazing scale, but were aiming at mercy and justice, not shock and awe. Institutions will be as charitable as its leaders. No community will be kind when those expected to model kindness are mean and timid. Where are those that are hungry for mission in our hard-hearted times?
Last year we launched our Road Trip from the American Public Health Association and the 100 Million Lives convening. That didn’t quite coincide this November, but one of the most remarkable discussions of APHA continues for the fifth year where the advocacy leaders gather on Sunday morning November 3. What began 5 years ago as a search for better messages help public health leaders be more effective in moving the public toward health, has shifted quite dramatically toward helping us help each other become better messengers. A recent article mostly written by Scott Burris speaks of this turning as a “public health advantage” resting in the fact we have real science and come into the public square in peace. We come early, stay late and will come back to advance the health of the public we love. These are qualities of virtue, not technique and they call for cultivation of an ever-urgent long view.
We are hungry for such people whether they work in public health, non-profit healthcare, community of faith or non-profit. It might be more accurate to say “thirsty” since one of the most surprising upwellings of healing energy came through the Tova Coffee House in Lubbock, Texas. Their hopeful brew carried us for days; will we find something as cool and tough in the Inland Sea?
As we did with our See2See Road trip, we’ll report in real time and with a carefully curated record. And as we did along the miles last November, we are open to surprises not on our schedule. If you’re near the path and want a conversation, let us know.