A New American Era

All of our lives changed when ill health fell upon the patriarch of my mother’s side of the family. Power dynamics changed among my relatives. Obligations and responsibilities among my mother and her siblings shifted. And my grandfather was no longer the resolute and persevering provider of our family.

My grandfather’s change in health was immediately followed by the death of my mother’s oldest sister. The fact that my papa had to bury his own child took quite the opposite effect than we expected on his state of mind regarding his own health. When he first got sick, we all just knew that my determined, stubborn, shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later grandfather would overcome his sickness. But he didn’t. We thought the sudden death of my aunt would be a wake-up call. But it wasn’t.

As U.S. citizens today embrace a new American era marked by the adoption of universal health care we must be able to see through the one-dimensional debates over cost and too much government expansion. And while I do admire that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will offer all US citizens health insurance or pathways to affordable and adequate insurance, I find that the beauty of the legislation lies in how it can address health outcome and health care disparities that plague racial and ethnic minorities in this country.

Blacks and first indigenous populations suffer disproportionately from diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and stress. While personal behavior plays a huge role in this, vast epidemiological research suggests that social determinants account for the majority of health disparities. How can we expect people to be healthy in neighborhoods that feature no areas where children can go outside and play and where fresh fruits and vegetables are miles away? Built into the ACA are initiatives to transform communities into places that are conducive to safe and healthy lifestyles. This means building parks in communities, providing adequate lighting at night and bringing in more grocery stores and farmer’s markets among other things. The health of the  individual is inextricably linked to his or her place of upbringing so it makes perfect sense to start making changes to American communities.

Another goal of the ACA is to have more minority and female physicians, nurses, counselors, etc. Having a doctor or a nurse that looks like you fosters better health care and outcomes and allows for a beneficial patient-doctor relationship. More minority doctors will also eliminate many of the biases and stereotypes that patients and physicians hold against each other as well as historical distrusts that certain minority communities—like the first indigenous and blacks—hold against medical doctors and researchers. Research shows that minority and female doctors tend to carry out less unintentional and subconscious racial or ethnic discrimination when diagnosing illness or prescribing medicine in the examination room. It will take a highly diverse health care workforce to address the health needs and concerns of an increasingly diverse nation.

While America’s historical fear of paternalism and big government naturally did apply to the adoption of universal health care we must always remember the stand behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance when adopting policies that will benefit all instead of some. And we should always fight for policies in this nation that can help redress pass injustices whenever they arise. And while genetic predispositions may explain some of the phenomena I discuss in this piece, there is a fallacy and danger in always adopting this view and ignoring the social and structural determinants of health.

When I reminisce about my aunt’s premature quietus and especially my grandfather’s debilitating sickness I simultaneously think about the environments they grew up in. My grandfather owned several businesses in the south from the 50s to the 70s–a time when it was even harder than it is today to be a black businessman. I’ve been to doctors appointments with my grandfather where I witnessed very little communication come from my grandfather or the physician; the entire session was void of any real understanding of each other. How can someone improve their health if they and their doctor rarely speak (if they even have one). Sometimes I cannot help but think that I lost my aunt and the man that my grandfather used to be to the eternal and unyielding stress of being a minority in this country. This stress overtime degenerates the body and brings on a sense of hopelessness. As I finish college and begin my working life during the inception of universal health care in the U.S. I will be happy to be living in an era where such a sweeping policy will be making this nation a better one for racial and ethnic minorities to live in.

Moxie and the City

For me personally, the #1 reason this summer has been life changing is because I have gained self-confidence I have been lacking for the past 3 years at Duke. My story is the classic one. I thought the world of myself and my abilities in high school and then I got to Duke and became a small fish in a big pond and all of that trust in my abilities starting fading away day by day, class by class, semester by semester. The conventional knowledge that when a woman goes to the university, she loses confidence becomes more timid and less sure of herself is really real. That was really me.

So as you could imagine, it was totally refreshing when I came to NYC and LM to get compliments on my work. It was refreshing that people wanted to get to know me not because I went to Duke but because of my interests and ideas. It’s also nice to not be surrounded by overly-competitive, cut-throat, spoiled-brats (do I need to say that not everyone at Duke is like this, just enough to seem like too many). And while this isn’t true, it seems like everyone in NYC is involved in some community-based, political or social justice organization. The point being that the change in scenery and in people was much needed for me. It was refreshing to start on a clean slate, in a new city where only a handful of people know who I am. When Alicia Keys sang, “…these streets will make you feel brand new…” she definitely wasn’t lying because that was my sentiment exactly. I felt like a brand new woman.

Now, the city is far from perfect. I have observed and learned about some things both on the streets and in the office that have disappointed me and brought me back down to earth but still it feels immensely amazing to be outside of the Duke bubble, outside of the academic pressure and outside of the undergrad social hierarchy. Though this is extremely selfish, the search and frisk, the NYPD presence in NYC public schools and the fact that places like East Harlem are food deserts—yet Bloomberg is trying to restrict the purchase of large sodas as a solution to the city’s nutritional problems—among other things that really irk me about the city do not bother me like the effortless perfection syndrome that plagues Duke. After all, a top-ten rated college campus should be a little more enlightened than an entire city, right?

I even feel more secure as a feminist within this third wave. I wouldn’t think twice about identifying as a feminist towards any audience; I’m going to get my Samantha Jones on (the character who was the epitome of third wave feminism on Sex and the City). My challenge now is to bring this confidence back to Duke with me. I can’t lose it or let it become weak. I can make it stronger by not comparing myself to my peers and even challenging them to take on a social justice perspective to life.

‘Speaking Truth to Power’

The highlight of my last couple of weeks was going to the Girls for Gender Equity 10th Anniversary and witnessing a conversation between three young ladies and Professor Anita Hill.

The interesting thing about the event was that it wasn’t about Professor Hill; it was very much about the young women holding the conversation with her. It was their time to shine. They very much dominated (not in a bad or obnoxious way) the conversation. They spoke and inquired about misogynistic environments, development and displacement, powerlessness and the act of ‘speaking truth to power’.

More so than anything I sensed a supportive and loving synergy from the crowd which was comprised mostly of women. Everyone was patient through the technical difficulties (which I have seen audiences deal with very badly). No one cut any throats for some time with Anita Hill. People didn’t mind standing up the entire night. It wasn’t a stuffy, over-the-top, dressed-to-the-nines affair, which made me feel very comfortable. Even the historic building seemed to radiate something that was intangibly for the cause.

By the end of the night the Brooklyn Historical Society became my very warm and cozy. When it was time to leave I felt as though I was leaving my home amongst dozens of amazing women and entering into the cold, harsh world. I didn’t want to leave.

Policymakers versus Ground Workers

Legal Momentum offers no “direct services”. We sort of temper with policies, try to make groups understand laws and act when laws/policies are not being implemented. My internship coordinator at LM who works on the Pipeline Project is fed up with policy makers. As a Public Policy Studies major, I will spend the rest of my summer in NYC pondering which group makes the most difference: the ground workers or the policy makers? While both groups impact this world through different ways and while both are needed, I think one has to win.

The women at the Girls for Gender Equity event featuring Anita Hill were ground workers. The women (and three men) I work with at LM are policymakers (and policy temperers/fixers/implementers). These are very different groups.

There seems to be little tangible change you can make on a computer all day in an air conditioned office. However, those doing the dirty the work wouldn’t have the power or space to without the policies and laws behind them.

I will report back as I learn more throughout the summer.

To the Savers of the World, to the Women

Anh, Colleen and I were walking back to our apartment from LM last Tuesday afternoon. At the time we were on 6th avenue and we passed a young white male who called out to us, “Save the world, Charlie’s Angels…”

We were a professionally dressed, multi-cultural triplet of women consisting of two brunettes and a blonde walking down 6th avenue, just leaving the mists of a feminist organization making big changes for women in this nation.We are all here to aid our organizations in saving the world one little piece of progress at a time. Since we are here under a framework of feminism it seems as though–to me at least–that women are those that are most violated by the world and by the same token, the ones that seem to have to bear the weight of it upon their shoulders in efforts to ‘save it’.

Reading Merle’s work, listening to her story and visiting her clinic made me wonder: How on earth can women save the world when we can barely hang onto the freedom to save our own bodies from events we do not desire. All of the recent and historical controversy over birth control and abortion represent nothing more but constant attempts to try to control the sovereignty a woman has over her own, personal property–her body. How can I be expected to control or influence events that could make the world–or some part of it–better if I can barely hang onto my own reproductive rights?

Merle told us that black women have abortions twice as much as white women. I think that this is due to a historical inaccessibility to equal education and economic opportunity. I think this is why Sistersong’s perspective is important. Arguably, reproductive rights can benefit minorities the most because they are the population that has been historically disadvantaged the most. And when you help the most marginalized people, everyone benefits.

I think that all of our organizations—like Choices Clinic—are saving the world by saving the rights of women (be they reproductive, economic, freedom from abuse, discrimination, etc.)

Women—and some men too—are the cradle of life, change, improvement and evolution. Whatever works for women, works for everyone (a little mantra I learned from my LM supervisor) which is why it makes perfect sense to tackle women’s rights in order to make this world a better one.

Saving the world sometimes can sound like an empty, superficial statement. But if people didn’t congregate and save my world as a black woman, I wouldn’t be at Duke; I wouldn’t be interning; in fact, nothing about my life would be as it is now. I’d like to dedicate this post to any woman anywhere who in some way protected the rights of her fellow sister and thus, protected the potential of this world to be fair, egalitarian and a good place to live for all sentient beings.


The Beginning

My name is India. I’m a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina. I’m 21 years old and a senior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy Studies and minoring in Economics. My academic interests are gendered and racial health disparities, discrimination against women and minorities and immigration/national borders. At Legal Momentum, I want to gain a better understanding of the cyclical nature of discrimination, education, income and health outcomes. For the past three days I have been exploring women in non-traditional employment.

My organization is Legal Momentum. LM is the oldest educational defense fund fighting for women’s social and economic security. LM is a non-profit whose origins are in the National Organization for Women.

Reading through its websites, my first impression of Legal Momentum was that the people there were serious (about their work and in personality) and passionate (and maybe a little wound up). My first impression was only partially correct. The women and three men there are passionate, very serious about their work and extremely spirited and charming in personality. Though most of these individuals are too busy for their own good, the office atmosphere is one of strong energy, harmony and productivity. Even the physical space of the office has its own synergy. Natural light from the city pours into the office which is lined with live green plants.

The attorneys and program coordinators there do vast amounts of information sharing and everyone is interested in everyone else’s endeavors. Furthermore, the employees at LM know everyone in NYC (or so I am convinced). It also seems as though everyone at LM has pioneered or spear headed some project dealing with social justice for women and has other minority-focused projects that are peripheral of LM.

In my group of closest girlfriends at Duke, I am the one that is the feminist. I’m always going on rants about how minority women disproportionately suffer from sicknesses and how egregious some socially accepted double standards are.  However, I do not call myself a feminist around my family or around people I don’t know well. Nor have I proclaimed that I am a feminist at LM.

I have heard the terms feminist and feminism leave the mouths of several different people at LM and I do not believe the organization tries to mask its feminism. One of the attorneys today sent everyone the title of a book she’s been reading dealing with feminism (The New Feminist Agenda by Madeleine M. Kunin). Another replied that the author would be in the city discussing her views.

I think everyone at LM suspects that Anh, Colleen and I are feminists at heart. I doubt they will ever inquire from us though—too much pressure.