Below is the address that I gave at the Commencement Ceremony for the 2013 Connecticut Health Leadership Fellow program last month. I've been meaning to post it for a while. It seems particularly apropos as part of the recent discussions about race following the George Zimmerman trial.
Last month, I went to three different commencement ceremonies and heard three different speeches. Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill told the graduates at UConn that people don’t remember commencement speeches. I don’t remember much else that she said. Film maker Joss Whedon told the graduating class at Wesleyan, “You are all going to die” and went on to talk about how we should live our lives. Yet the speech that really stuck with me was by Reverend Liz Walker who spoke about how as the world gets smaller, we are going to realize that people different from us, ‘they’ are really ‘us’.
In many ways, she provided a theme for my thinking about my experiences as a member of the 2013 Fellows class. I've always been ambivalent, at best, about leadership. It has always seemed to me that leaders are too often the people seeking to maintain a system that brings privileges to those leaders and their friends at the expense of everyone else. Yet this program has been about changing systems to bring equity, not maintain privilege. Our class has identified ourselves as agitators, and that’s a label I gladly wear.
I felt a bit uncomfortable about coming into this class for a couple different reasons. Addressing health disparities was not a big concern for me when I started this program. I've always been an equal opportunity agitator, railing against any sort of inequality or injustice… but, as Martin Luther King said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane”. So, I've greatly appreciated our time working together to address health disparities.
Another thing that made feel a little uncomfortable coming into this program is all the really bright and impressive other members of the class of 2013. Between the MDs, PhD’s, Professors and numerous other titles, I wondered how a college dropout like me would fit in. I felt like an outsider, an interloper.
The Diversity Walk that we did a few months ago helped illustrate that all of us, are at times, the outsiders, the interlopers and at other times, privileged and in power. At various times, we are the ‘us’ and at other times, we are the ‘them’. Instead of ‘us’ trying to be more like ‘them’, or wanting ‘them’ to become more like ‘us’, we need to recognize the value that each person brings, no matter what their educational background, race, gender, sexual preference, or any other labels that we choose to divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. A sermon I recently heard, put it nicely in terms of seeking unity, not uniformity.
So, as we think about this unity, it is perhaps useful to think about the word ‘fellowship’. We often think of this in terms of an award bestowed by a foundation or university, yet it is important to think about a more common form of the word, “A close association of friends or equals sharing similar interests.”
And perhaps that is the most important part of what this year has been about, establishing long lasting friendships that will carry us forward as we work together to eliminate health disparities.
As many of you know, this past year has been especially challenging for me, and from a time management sense, it might have been much easier if I didn't have all the Fellows activities to juggle along with everything else. But really, it probably would have been much more difficult if I didn't have all of my new friends from the Fellowship supporting me.
So now, the 2013 program comes to an end and we commence our ongoing work together to fight health disparities. To all the fellows, from this year and previous years, let’s stay in touch. I hope you’re all in the LinkedIn group. I hope you all get involved with affinity groups and I look forward to working alongside you.
I have never been a big fan localities fighting against one another to attract companies. Typically, the companies win and the localities lose. Yet some recent developments point larger political issues. A month ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry came to Connecticut to try and recruit local gun manufacturers to move to Texas in response to legislation passed in the wake of the Newtown shooting. Businesses have tried to fight worker and consumer friendly legislation talking about Connecticut being bad for business. Walmart has vowed not to open stores in Washington DC after the city council passed a law requiring large box stores to pay a living wage to its employees.
All of this begs a question, what sort of business is good for Connecticut? Do we want jobs where people have to rely on the Government or their families and friends to survive in this state? Texas might, but should we?
This was illustrated nicely in the latest Measure of America report, where Connecticut came out as the best state to live in.
Connecticut and Wyoming have nearly the same GDP. Yet Connecticut residents, on average, can expect to outlive their western compatriots by two and a half years, are almost 50 percent more likely to have a bachelor’s degree, and typically earn $7,000 more. This comparison shows how an overreliance on economic metrics such as GDP can provide misleading information about the everyday conditions of people’s lives.
Recently, Colorado has been attempting to attract businesses to relocate to their state because it is one of the healthiest states. If Connecticut wants to keep for jobs, it should be competing to be the healthiest and happiest state, and not the state where workers and consumers have the lowest paying jobs and worst health.
In the long term, this appears to be much more productive. Take a look at Costco and Walmart. Which one has better returns and stronger stock performance? Costco, the company that treats its employees well. I hope Costco will offer to step into Washington DC in lieu of Walmart.
Yet back to the politics. Gov. Perry came to Connecticut to recruit businesses that don't like our new gun laws. Perhaps, after the vote in the Texas State Legislature, it is time for Gov. Malloy to make a trip to Texas to recruit businesses that respect the rights of women.
Friday afternoon around 150 people gathered in the Center Gym at Woodbridge to celebrate the swearing in of newly elected and appointed members of various boards and commissions in town. These are people who give of their time to work together with their friends and neighbors in Woodbridge to help make our town a better place.
Just a few days earlier, the incoming Board of Selectmen gathered to vote on appointments to there boards and commissions. Due to family logistics, I watched the proceedings from home on Channel 79. As a member of the Government Access Television Commission, I was disappointed with the sound quality of the broadcast, but I could hear enough to make the following observation.
Selectman Joseph Dey expressed concerns about how the process was being handled. He talked about how he wanted more information about the people he would be voting on. It is a laudable request that he failed move forward with.
I am fairly involved in town politics, but I suspect that I know less than half the appointees and I would have loved to hear more information about these people who volunteer to serve our town. If Selectman Dey had been truly concerned about who was being appointed to the various boards and commissions, before each vote, when First Selectman Ellen Scalettar asked if there was any discussion, Selectman Dey could have said something like, "I don't believe I know Neelam Gupta. Why do you think Neelam would be a good member of the Economic Development Commission?"
I must admit, I'm not sure if I know who Neelam is and would have appreciated hearing the answer. I'm sure it would have been informative, and I suspect I would have ended up thinking Neelam would be a good commissioner.
Instead, Selectman Dey abstained on just about every vote, winning him the nickname among some local political pundits of Joey the Abstainer. One person commented on Facebook that they were "surprised that he was unaware of some of the bigger names at the Town Hall. For example, Terry Gilbertson is a fixture and was an easy vote to NOT abstain from." The response was, "perhaps Selectman Dey represents those in town who chose not to know who their neighbors are or what is going on in town".
Instead, Selectman Dey may have been trying to make a point about his inability to work constructively with other elected officials. He may have been seeking to place the blame on the other elected officials, but in the end, it appeared that he was the problem. I hope, for the sake of the town, he learns how to work better with others as his term progresses.
Now some of you may raise the concern that asking questions about the nominees would have made the meeting much longer. That too, is a valid concern, but personally, I would have liked a longer meeting hearing great things about my friends and neighbors that volunteer to help in our community. Hopefully, we will get other chances for this.
At the end of the commencement ceremony for the 2013 CT Health Leaders Fellowship, we were all invited to stand and take one step forward, symbolizing the first step of a thousand mile journey. It is a journey of eliminating health disparities. I had spoken earlier about being an equal opportunity activist, and that this journey was but one of many journeys I am on.
All of this came back to me in many ways this past week. Thursday night was the annual Nurse's dinner at the Community Health Center. One of the stories was of a 450 pound diabetic man who had fallen through the cracks of the American health care system. A care-coordination nurse tracked down his story and followed through to help him get bariatric surgery. He has already lost thirty pounds and with therapy, is starting to walk again after having been bedridden for over a year.
Later, we heard a little bit of her story, an immigrant from a war torn country, who struggled with diabetes and depression through school, but eventually became a nurse at CHC. The patient is on his journey of recovery, aided by a nurse who has taken difficult first steps in her journey to this country and her journey to becoming a nurse.
The story stayed in my mind Friday morning as I went to the funeral of a former classmate and co-worker of my wife. Emily was taken from us way to early, by complications from diabetes.
This week also saw important other steps in our life together as a country. The Supreme Court dismantled key parts of the Voting Rights Act, but it took away some restrictions on gay marriage. I watched the wedding ceremony streaming across the Internet where plaintiffs in the challenge to Prop 8, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier were married.
I read stories about Paula Dean and Rachel Jeantel and I thought about how much work still needs to be done before all people truly are treated equally in all states, no matter what their race or sexual orientation is.
I imagine that the 450 pound patient celebrated the first steps in his recovery as he sat back down and rested after the strain of those steps. Tonight, I go to bed emotionally weary, celebrating first steps, lamenting steps backwards, and mourning the death of a friend.
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit; the month of June rolls in with hot humid weather, and life slowing down, close enough to normal for me to write my typical start of the month blog post with the childhood invocation of good luck.
Today, being the first Saturday of June, the Essex Rotary Club is having their annual Shad Bake. I've never been to a shad bake before, but a friend has spoken highly of them, so I'm thinking about working this into the schedule if possible.
Then, tomorrow, Miranda's book, Don't Make Art, Just Make Something gets launched up in Somerville, MA. I'm really looking forward to the event. Miranda just received her Masters of Education in Community Art, and the book has a bit to say about the educational system. For example, see this video of Miranda reading an excerpt from her book.
It fits well with Sarah Darer Littman's Op-Ed in CTNewsJunkie, An Open Letter to Connecticut Students.
June will see the end of the 2013 legislative session in Connecticut. I'll complete the CT Health Foundations, Health Leadership Fellows program and be doing various social media presentations.
Perhaps most importantly, I'll be spending time, when possible, swimming.