On Ownership, Authority, and Gratefulness

Back in December, two fellow PHC members and I went on a road trip to D.C. for the opening of Women in Public Service Colloquium at the Department of State.  This inaugural ceremony was to uplift the next generation of women leaders to invest in their countries and communities, provide leadership in their governments, and change the way global solutions are forged.  Under bright spotlights and heavy-duty security, women who are regularly featured on the front page of news reports, including Hilary Clinton, Madeline Albright and Christine Lagarde, gathered to willingly and enthusiastically share their life experiences with aspiring young women who were similarly committed to public service.

After having spent four months at the West Philadelphia Health Center, this conference provided an eye-opening and refreshing perspective on the profound impact women have in our communities. On the ride back, we discussed how we can encourage others to implement positive changes starting with our apartment, then to our health centers, Philadelphia and beyond.  They were hard questions, ones that were never completely unpacked and ones that left me wondering if I got anything out of this.

The following day, back at the health center, I walked into our bright yellow halls looking forward to seeing our prenatal mothers.  These women are funny, wonderful, grateful souls, who carry themselves with immense grace and beauty.  Behind closed doors, they share their stories of broken families, abuse and past hurts.  Some have quietly taken me aside and asked for advice on how they can provide the essentials for their child: a crib, car seat and formula. They worry about how they will feed their family, whether the food stamps and WIC will cover their costs, and how they will pay for their utilities and next month’s rent.  They worry about their kids in school– about their grades and whether they will be safe.  They are mothers through and through and I feel both honored and inspired to hear their vulnerable, tragic, but ultimately, beautiful stories.

Out in public, in the waiting room, these mothers to-be are strong-willed, opinionated and community-oriented.  Seasoned mothers share advice on breastfeeding, tell each different food options to avoid morning sickness, and mentor younger mothers on best practices for child rearing.  As a by-stander and one who gives mini sessions on these topics, this scene makes me believe everything is going to be okay and that life is a work of art.  What happens in this room swells my heart– is this not what community health is about?

I revisit our unanswered questions we asked on the road trip back from the conference.  “How can we help encourage others in our community to parent positive changes and build a generation of women who will contribute back to their communities?”  Whether women gather in power suits under camera lights or in worn-out track suits glowing with pregnancy happiness, I realize that we all desire to work towards bettering the world.  This unwritten mission transcends tax brackets, society’s definition of female beauty, and political, sexual, religious orientations, among others.

This is not to advocate for complacency and to assume that a space where women are encouraged to lead will graciously fall from the sky.  Instead, I am reminded every day that change must come from the people we are trying to serve.  The community has to have ownership and authority in what changes they would like to see.  Groups like our own earn trust from these women, and we work with them to achieve a common goal.  Remembering back in October, a month into my Philadelphia Health Corps journey, I wrote a letter to myself, “Susie, you know this feeling right now?  This joy can only come from serving others with good intention.  When you feel tired or discouraged, think of the people you’ve already met and the lessons they have taught you.  Think of them always.”  Safe to say, I am forever grateful to have met these women both in track suits and power suits.  Thank you.

-Sung Eun (Susie) Kim, Social Work Associate at the Health Annex

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