Inspiring Change with a Health Disparities Conference
By Stuart Nelson
October 9th, 2013
Two weeks ago, ISH, with support from Houston Graduate School of Theology, sponsored a forum that brought experts from around the City of Houston together to discuss health disparities in the context of changing demographics in our city. While events centering on this topic frequent urban lecture halls, the panel brought together for this particular forum was unusual because of the depth of experience and range of perspectives that it brought to the table.
Larry Payne began the afternoon with a simple metaphor using a rubber band. One end of the rubber band, he explained while holding one up, represents “the vision.” It represents what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “the beloved community.” Then, looping one finger through the rubber band and bringing it down to his waist, he explained that the other end of the rubber band represents the political, social, economic “messiness” that reality brings with it. This messiness, of course, apparent in the now thin, straining rubber band, is always trying to pull against the vision. The gap in the band – the place where the tension in the rubber band is held – Mr. Payne explained, is where human beings dwell. It is up to us to choose how we are to proceed in the face of the tension between the vision and reality. Will we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the messiness of the world?
Dr. Stephen Klineberg elaborated on what “reality” means for the city of Houston, and how that reality has changed over the past three decades. He explained how the massive success of commercial industry here has impacted historical communities, and how our extreme ethnic and cultural diversity makes Houston both a special place and one with unique challenges. His talk set the stage for a detailed and grim view of the disparities in our society, provided by Dr. Lovell Jones. Dr. Jones spoke about the history of disparities in America, and his thoughts on why things are as bad as they are. He spoke about the radical differences in the quality, quantity, and success of treatment between racial and ethnic groups, giving particular attention to the African American Community. For example, in one striking case, Dr. Jones informed us that the black-white ratio of infant mortality in the United States has not changed in 100 years. In other words, absolutely zero progress has been made in this metric despite the presumed civil and social advancement that has been made in the same timeframe. The facts he provided and the questions he posed left me thinking about my own role in the bigger picture, and I suspect that much of the audience felt the same way.
If Dr. Jones presented a case informing us just how pressing the issue of health disparities is for our community, and just how hard the hurdles are to cross, Dr. Patricia “Gail” Bray showed us what her community of service is doing to combat inequality and to promote health and well being in communities that have been historically underserved. Most striking for me was hearing about the profound role that technology and online resources play in increasing access to care in the communities that need it most. She spoke of several initiatives that are based on a model of continued assessment and implementation, using data driven, outcomes-based grant-making policy to drive systemic change in the neighborhoods that are struggling with basic health needs.
To close the lectures off, Reverend Bill Lawson and Archbishop Fiorenza spoke of their experiences, both personal and professional, with health disparities, paying special attention to the role that faith and community have in the moral and spiritual parts of combating inequality. And we learned that there are profound moral and spiritual sides to this story. Rev. Lawson reminded us of this when he told the story of MLK beginning his ministry by paying attention to those who were in need – his spiritual life and his life in service to his neighbors were two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged portion of the afternoon came at the very end of the program, after many attendees had left. It was then, during the Q+A, that people from the audience got up to tell their stories and express their thoughts. The room fell silent as one woman, close to tears, expressed immense frustration at how big and deep this topic is and how helpless an individual can feel when trying to comprehend its nuances to affect change. Harkening back to Larry Payne’s metaphor – we heard how daunting the “messiness” of reality can be.
The Archbishop closed the afternoon by noting, “Most people are of good will. But there is a lack of political will to do something about this problem because there is a culture of indifference that pervades society. The effect of this indifference is a lack of sensitivity to those who are suffering, suffering everyday.”
These final statements reminded me that too many people are caught up in the messiness of everyday life – prevented from reaching the beloved community by the force of an unrelenting rubber band. Those of us with spiritual, physical, and economic strength must point ahead to the flickering possibility of a just society and use this inspiration to spread word of the vision.
Stuart Nelson is the Project Manager for the ISH. He uses his formal training in both the sciences and the humanities to creatively plan programs, organize services, and assist with the ISH online presence and tech needs, as well as to serve in administrative capacities. You can read more about Stuart HERE.