Good morning everyone, welcome to the 21st Annual Doctors for Global Health General Assembly- Thank you all for being here!
This weekend’s general assembly will address many of the important and relevant issues on our minds today- environmental justice, the migration experience, xenophobia, trauma, and racism, among other things.
And this is heavy stuff. 12 months ago when we chose these topics, we had no idea what the year ahead had in store for us, although the patterns and trends were predictable. Checking in with people this last week, last month, and over the last year, there are a lot of emotions: fear, anger, guilt, sorrow, helplessness, rage, anguish. No doubt you feel some of this in your heart right now. The national rhetoric around the US presidential debate is shocking and unsettling, and as if that is not enough, every week a new challenge confronts us before we even had time to comprehend the last one. So I want to take a moment to acknowledge all of these feelings. And I want to welcome you to this place where over the course of this weekend we will consider these and other challenges together. We have space on the walls where we invite you to share any thoughts and feelings that may come up; head, heart, and hands. We also have a memorial space, a “sacred space” if you will, for anyone who would like to share memories, prayers, or other forms of remembrance of those we have lost. Our hope is that this might bring healing as we come together and try to grapple with where we go from here.
For me, Doctors for Global Health is family, and our yearly General Assemblies have become a sort of family reunion that I look forward to, knowing that alongside all of you we can become rejuvenated once again. We need family right now.
In a moment we will pass around the microphone so you can meet some of our extended DGH global family that has gathered here today. But first, I want to tell two stories about my own family. My dad grew up right here in Minneapolis, in St. Louis Park. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a wildlife and fisheries biologist, and for many years he worked alongside the Ojibwe people in Northern Minnesota. He often worked in and around the Red Lake Indian Reservation, a place that has a unique history among indigenous tribes in the U.S. of maintaining its sovereignty and resisting colonization by the United States for its entire history. Through my grandfather’s work as an environmentalist, he earned the respect and friendship of the tribes because he respected their land and their way of life. On occasion, he was invited to participate in tribal activities. My dad recently told my sister and I a story of when, as a child, he joined my grandfather and the tribes in Northern Minnesota for the yearly wild rice harvest. All day long, 4 people to a canoe, from dawn till dusk they would push through the muddy shallow waters- two in the front, gently tapping the rice plants with a stick and allowing the kernels of rice to fall into the floor of the canoe, and two in the back to steer and push. By the end of the day they had a canoe full of rice, enough to last through the winter. And so he and my family witnessed first hand the beauty and abundance of tribal lands in Northern Minnesota.
My dad tells another story about growing up in Minneapolis, and this is one of many stories he has shared about some kind of trouble he got himself into. One night, probably the early 1960s, well before I was born, he and his friends were drinking in a bar, and a fight broke out, which spilled into the streets. The police came and broke up the fight. He and his friends- all white- got a slap on the wrist and were sent home. The people of color involved in the incident all got arrested.
Why do I bring this up? Because both of these stories about my family can be seen through a lens of white privilege. Same night, same fight, same street corner. If you are white you go home, if you are black you go to jail. That’s the world my dad grew up in, and he never questioned it. My grandfather- who was indeed doing good work- had the privilege of doing this work because of the protection afforded him by the US government and his position as a white biologist. But the struggle to maintain sovereignty and traditional ways of life on the same land by first nation Ojibwe people is a history marked by U.S. land grabs and continued struggle over centuries to fight oppression.
These stories and narratives I pull from my own family tree to reflect upon are not unique. The protection afforded by white privilege is in stark contrast to many who fight for justice around the world today. This weekend, we will hear from Olivia Caceres. Her mother Berta Caceres was brutally murdered in March of this year as she worked with others in the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in the struggle for the preservation of the land and way of life of the indigenous Lenca people. And within the last few weeks, another member of COPINH, Lesbia Janeth Urquía was also murdered. In Honduras- as well as in Oaxaca Mexico, where a teacher’s strike recently turned deadly, and in Chiapas where the decades long struggles of the autonomous communities in Chiapas continues on- neoliberal forces are at play that make working towards justice and human dignity a deadly pursuit.
As an update to our previously posted GA speakers, unfortunately, Dr. Jack Geiger cannot be here with us this weekend, he is at home resting and our thoughts are with him. Like many of you, I wanted to hear his words once again to help guide all of us through these tough times. In lieu of him being able to speak in person, we will have time on Sunday to more fully ponder his work and his influence. But I want to take a moment to share Dr. Geiger’s perspective on the Flint water crisis, because of its relevance to this weekend’s discussions. He wrote on Feb 3rd, 2016: “The lead-poisoning disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a shocking public health failure. It is an assault on human rights – a recognition that has been largely absent from most discussions of how and why this could have happened…. The water poisoning in Flint was finally forced into official recognition by a brave and stubborn pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha, who documented what was really happening to Flint’s vulnerable children and other residents…. It is arguably the largest discrete violation of its type since the infamous and grossly unethical Tuskegee syphilis medical study... In both events [Tuskegee and Flint], a particularly despicable form of racism is manifested: a contemptuous disregard for the health of people of color, especially if they are poor and can be dismissed as politically and economically irrelevant….”
On this topic of racism and health, today we will hear from Law Professor Nekima Levy Pounds on recent events and her reflections on racism in America. Today we are invited to hear her words, and also to challenge white privilege and white supremacy, because these forces are at the root of the oppression and racism we see here in our local communities and across the U.S. As Dr. Geiger’s words remind us, racism in the U.S. is pervasive. I see it in my own family; I see the consequences of structural violence and oppression in my patients’ bodies every day when I go to work at Martin Luther King Jr Hospital in Watts, California. We see it in the inaction of local governments to make important changes. Speaking about Flint, Dr. Geiger says “Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s work illustrates a truth larger than the Flint case itself. A new and important domain of professional responsibility has emerged for health professionals and medical scientists: the documentation and exposure of human rights and civil rights abuses that violate long-established legal and ethical agreements, and international and domestic laws. Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s efforts are essentially similar to the work of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in Syria or other conflict zones, in detention camps and prisons in the United States and abroad, in humanitarian crises, and among asylum seekers.”
These are the things we will talk about this weekend, because they are critical to human health and wellbeing. You will also hear the words “liberation medicine.” What is liberation medicine? It is the “conscious, conscientious use of health to promote human dignity and social justice.” This weekend we will apply a liberation medicine lens to these important challenges facing our global community. We believe a liberation medicine lens can help us build a pathway forward. We build consciousness through education and conversation. This should lead to praxis- ACTION- to go home to your local community to build wellness and meaningful relationships in a manner that is truly conscientious of the world around us, and that takes into consideration the root causes of health and disease. Oppression kills, and the conscious, contentious use of health to promote human dignity and social justice can heal.
Liberation medicine means that we work in accompaniment. We only go where we are invited to participate in the health of communities, and communities set their own priorities. Local voices are amplified, and our work is done through building long term relationships that eventually feel like FAMILY.
No, we will not figure it all out this weekend! But I want to leave you with one concept that our founder Dr. Lanny Smith talks about often. It is the concept of Alta Alegremia. "Alta alegremia" means "high blood happiness" - to be full of the joy of being human despite devastation or tremendous suffering. It describes how the local communities in El Salvador persevered and rebuilt their lives after experiencing the horror and devastation of war, and it is something similar to what we are all in need of today.
I'm glad I’m here together with all of you, my DGH family, to share some of the burden of life with one another, and to ask ourselves how can we possibly go on in times like these. We hope that the lens of liberation medicine and time together this weekend may provide us with opportunities for the health, healing and wellness we all want to see in ourselves, our families, our communities, and in all people across the globe.
So once again welcome, thank you for being here. Thank you to our incredible organizers and those who traveled from around the world.