For my year of service with the Philadelphia Health Corps (PHC), I have been serving at the 11th Street Family Health Services Center, a wonderful integrative care center where I can pretty much do any project that will help this community become healthier. Yet, I’ve been feeling kind of down, lately; am I making a significant difference, or just a little one? How can I know that all the work I’ve done this year will be continued in my absence, and does it matter?
Last Wednesday, the Lower North Philadelphia Sports Collaborative hosted its first Field Day, with help from some fantastic volunteers (including PHC members!). About 50 kids between ages four and twelve ran around for almost two hours and enjoyed some healthy snacks. Still, I was frustrated by how last minute the arrangements had been, and how difficult it was to get everyone at the same meeting. Can you believe it? I organize a collaborative of community groups that creates an event to give a bunch of kids a safe, fun fitness experience, and I feel defeated by how haphazardly it comes together.
The turning point happened only later, after a powerful lecture on health equity and race by the National Director of Health Programs at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Shavon Arline-Bradley spoke about the hopelessness that arises from being oppressed by a system promising wealth and individual success to hard workers. She talked about giving up, and about refusing to speak up for your rights out of the fear that more rights will be taken away from you. These ideas are not new to me, but in the day to day, I tend to see patients as individuals with complete freedom of choice, and myself working in a vacuum where my goals are obvious and extremely important.
I guess I have always subconsciously imagined that the payoff from hard, heartfelt work is backlit by a flashing neon sign. Somehow, that Field Day should have been a cinch to plan, and neighborhood children should have flocked to the field with parents, grills, and lawn chairs in tow. If I am chasing that kind of success, I may want to pick a career that doesn’t directly address systemic inequities. When I work hard and success still doesn’t come easily, I start to think that maybe I am not very useful after all, and maybe my community would do just as well without me, and then, thank goodness, someone like Ms. Arline-Bradley reminds me that checking out will merely channel energy away from progress.
It will always feel good to see kids hula hooping enthusiastically as a result of my work, but after that lecture, I think I’m more motivated by looking at the big picture. I will have to periodically remember that NOT fighting inequities perpetuates them, and, therefore, working against them is the only viable option. I will have to see every program that I lead as a vote of confidence in the patients I serve, because that’s what it is. And, most of all, I will have to take more joy in small successes, and see them as stepping stones to the future that I want to create.
-Tess Thorman, 11th Street Family Health Services