APHA Field Reports: Opening Plenary – The Church of Cornel West

By Jaime Delavan
Reporting for the 2010 American Public Health Association Meeting in Denver Colorado

The opening for the 138th annual American Public Health Association (APHA) meeting and expo, focusing on social justice and public health, provided an impressive line-up. I mean no disrespect but I am not going to list them all. There were impassioned statements about health care reform, the number of people without health insurance and the need for a public option. There were strong words around changing our sick care system to a health care system. There was a challenge to collectively find our public health voice. There were thoughts shared about the lack of health care available for the people (a large number who are immigrants) who put food on our table, sweep our floors, and help keep us safe. There was talk of available funding for things (and people) “we” are comfortable with.  And a group shout of the word “racism”. A resounding acknowledgement of it’s existence in America, and not just among Euro-Americans. There was reflective mention of Tuskegee and the hurt and distrust that formed from that bad (really bad) moment in public health history. And how that bad helped shape the world of community-based participatory research that we see today. A world where the IRB process which, while it can be worrisome and time consuming, is present to protect individuals and communities from exploitation. It was a call to be mindful in our work. More on this later in the piece on co-opting.

But there is nothing like the church of Cornel West. I was fortunate to hear him last January in Boise when he was the keynote for the MLK human rights celebration. He was no less impressive this day. You may be familiar with him through his influential book, “Race Matters”. If not, pick it up. It’s a worthwhile read and has been credited with changing the discourse on race. Or maybe you are more familiar with him from the movie the “Matrix”. I’ve read that he had a hand in the development of the storyline as well as a recurring role in the film. I must confess, I haven’t seen the movie.

West, referencing Curtis Mayfield, Billie Holiday, Sly Stone, John Coltrane, Bootsy Collins, and Curtis Mayfield while talking about social justice, had everyone clapping and shouting. It was like church without the fans. “Social justice, it’s like the blues”, he declared. “It’s personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” It sheds light on “Everyday People”, and “Strange Fruit”. It is “Love Supreme”. But in America, we like to deodorize the discourse. We like to focus on success and ignore “the basement”. It’s time to stop deodorizing and focus on the “funk”.  Cornell West challenged the audience to think socratically. To ask the tough questions and challenge modes of thought. West shared the story of telling President Obama that he will be a socratic supporter. He will ask the tough questions. And again advised us to ask the tough questions and not get discouraged but “Keep pushing on”.

West asked, “So if the banks are too big to fail does that mean the poor are too small to help?”. Interesting socratic question. It was a perfect kick-off to a few days of social justice and public health conversation.

You can make a living or make a life. You can live the good life or live a life of good. Many of us are wounded healers, working with passion and compassion. The time has come when we need to put the accent on courage. Too many people are used to injustice. The wretched of the earth, their humanity is just as important as anyone else’s. It’s time to invest in human health and spirit – Cornell West

Also, check out a video of Cornel’s talk below!

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