These are tough times in America for many of her citizens of all creeds and colors. Decades of wage stagnation and a declining middle class have left millions of Americans anxious about the present and pessimistic about the future. According to a recent Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction. A 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics poll of millennials found that nearly half (48 percent) believe the American Dream is dead and a 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found a connection between jobs and economic circumstances and the rising suicide rates of middle-aged Americans. The New York Times yesterday reported on a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found American men in the top one percent in income live 15 years longer than American men in the bottom one percent. These developments are enough to depress the most hopeful among us.
Yet, despite these pronouncements of doom and gloom, there are many hopeful Americans out there doing what they can to turn things around. I found a few of these optimistic gladiators in Springfield, Missouri at the 2016 Public Affairs Conference held at Missouri State University April 5 through April 8. The theme of the conference: “Building Healthy Communities: Body, Mind, and Spirit” speaks to MSU’s mission to engender holistic communities through civic engagement. Missouri State University received this mission in 1995 when Governor Mel Carnahan signed into law a bill that designated MSU as the state’s university with a public affairs mission that would distinguish it from other universities in the state.
The Public Affairs conference is one of seven signature events that are held each year to promote MSU’s unique purpose which is to produce leaders who will think globally and act locally to bring people together around issues that affect their wellbeing. When I received the invitation to present at the conference, I had no idea where Springfield, Missouri was or why they chose me. When I arrived at the city of about 160,000 people at its core and another 200,000 in surrounding areas, I met many people who had concerns about their future but were hopeful that they could do some things to make it more promising. This year they decided to bring people together and focus on building healthy communities.
There are a few things you might want to know about Springfield, Missouri. Twenty-six percent of the population lives below the poverty line. While the unemployment rate is a respectable 5.8 percent, families are not taking in much income. The median household income in Springfield is $32,473 compared to $47,764 for the entire state, and $53,482 for the nation as a whole. The city’s population is 90 percent white with four percent black and four percent Hispanic. Once a swing state, Missouri is now pretty solidly in the category of red states. Although Governor Jeremiah (Jay) Nixon is a Democrat, the state legislature is solidly Republican with the GOP holding 24 of 34 seats in the Senate and 116 seats in the General Assembly compared to 45 Democrats. The state has a voter ID requirement and has not accepted the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act leaving Missouri with an uninsured rate of 20 percent compared to the national rate of nine percent.
Despite these depressing statistics, conference organizers believe that things can change and that change begins when people work together to find solutions. Things change when communities vet their representatives and elect those who will work in their interests. That’s the goal. Yet many people remain trapped in poverty and despair because it is not easy to find the motivation to get involved in activities other than trying to keep your head above water. It takes leaders to inspire people to think and act outside themselves. The conference promoted the idea of finding leaders and generating the hope needed to build healthy communities. It was unusual in that organizers barred PowerPoint presentations and discouraged presenters from reading from prepared texts. They wanted panelists to speak from the heart.
I met so many wonderful people in my three days there that I would need to write another post to talk about them all. A few I need to identify: Dr. Mary Ann Jennings who was my escort, drove me around the city and schooled me on the city’s history. It was a delight to meet conference chair Dr. Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk and conference coordinator Candace Fisk. Meeting Father Marc Boisevert was a treat and listening to him talk about his work over the past 18 years trying to engender hope in people in Haiti. I made many acquaintances with other panelists and conference participants—too many to name. I spoke to a class of BSW students and a group of local social workers.
Fancying myself to be a policy wonk, I generally look to laws, regulations and policies to find solutions to problems. Getting my head around building healthy communities through the dimensions of mind, body and spirit was challenging. There is often little room in the arenas of policy and politics for the spiritual. I drew on my Baptist roots and my work with African American males at Brooklyn’s Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in the 1990s. My time in Springfield helped me to appreciate how unique and special is our profession of social work. In the midst of the professionalism and licensing, we work to bring hope to people and communities. That is powerful medicine.
The post Hope Is Powerful Medicine appeared first on Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy.
Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D
Hope Is Powerful Medicine was originally published @ Charles Lewis – Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy and has been syndicated with permission.
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