By Gary Gunderson
They had worked fifty-seven days straight, terror loose in the land, towers in rubble, disease finding its way in the social disarray. In the basement of the CDC it fell to the lawyer to bring the word he found in William Butler Yeats the night before.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
Gene Matthews was the general counsel for the CDC, now teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The Center must hold,” he said. “It will and is. And we are that center. Anarchy has no chance against a people armed with science and deep values of love of the public.”
COVID-19 provokes the great drama of our age. We are not audience, but actors. COVID shreds and taunts our social and political weakness, so diminished by the brute polarization of recent years. We are all in the work of public health, tuned to the steady groundedness of those in public health leadership. But so many of us are called out of our disciplines and siloes into service of the public, the world that God so loves.
Stakeholder Health is adapting our podcast with a new series, The Center Holds. The first one is a conversation with Gene Matthews and Lauren Gunderson, a healer of the public heart, the most produced American playwright. The focus is on public health leadership as a work of narrative and voice, getting the message right so that all of us understand our roles and can make the choices that lead toward life. Much of Lauren’s work explores the drama of science and scientists—especially women. She’s given voice to Newton and Emilie Du Chatelet, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Henrietta Leavitt, and her play I and You is about a very sick kid and the astonishing ways we help each other in times of desperation.
Gene is often way ahead of his field. And Yeats is not the only poem he can quote by memory. Five years ago he began to gather a team to focus on building the capacity of public health leaders to craft better messages and to become better messengers to heal the divisiveness of our bipartisan times. A significant body of work has emerged with multiple strong voices flowing through the public health leadership apparatus, anchored in the Network for Public Health Law.
Even today, he released another article in the Journal of Public Health Practice.
Stakeholder Health is a voluntary learning collaborative compromised of 50-plus faith- and mission-based health systems as well as 40 other policy, research and think tank organizations. For nearly ten years we have helped each other be smarter and braver, linking our most mature values with our most relevant science. Sometimes we feel so far ahead of our traditional clinical systems that we feel like strangers in our own systems. And then there come times when all the systems are utterly overwhelmed, uncertain and afraid. In February we gathered on the other side of King County from the elder care facility that riveted the attention and broke the hearts of the nation as Covid-19 came home. We could see the old normal healthcare world evaporating by the minutes taking all its protocols, payment models and IT that are so disconnected from social reality. We left our hotel where we had worked for two days without knowing quite how much had changed.
Now, less than a month later, we still can’t see the new normal. But those of us in Stakeholder will probably recognize it as we have long imagined our healthcare organizations focused on humble service of mercy and justice with seamless integration of the bio-medical, psychological, social and spiritual. That is the ancient normal that still resonates in our bones. But we couldn’t figure out how to clear away all the modern clutter. Now, perhaps, we may find ourselves building the Next Normal equipped with the very best of science and information systems. The moment we thought was long over the horizon may be at our fingertips, on our keyboards, emerging from our IT meetings and Zoom calls…now.
Gene and Lauren are both teachers and practitioners in the art of public voice. The podcast is about how all of us can find our voice, needed by our institutions and communities in these moments.
We are the Center holding.
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