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Reflecting on Systems, Diversity, and Hope

by Catherine Bodkin, Senior Technical Assistance Specialist, Policy Center

Growing up in a family of teachers and lawyers, I experienced dinner conversations that included stories of child development, policies, precedent, and community. My mother was director of the first Head Start program in Cleveland and later established a child care center in a high school, enrolling children of students and faculty, to prepare students for early childhood education careers. My dad loved to share historical anecdotes about Cleveland (and later upstate New York) neighborhoods, buildings, and businesses as we drove around town. Volunteering and voting were expected family activities. An awareness of systemic factors creating opportunities for some and denying these for others was an awareness that came so early I thought everyone saw the inequities and the need for change, until I went to college in North Carolina and was surprised by other explanations. When I departed from family tradition to become a clinical social worker, I did not have the terminology of social determinants of health, life course development, or institutional racism, but I knew I wanted to be in the community, dealing with what happened outside the classroom and before the courtroom.

A system lens has always seemed more natural to me than focusing only on one program’s operations. I tend to see not only what or who is present but what or who is missing. Sometimes understanding a new state or city system can be similar to the experience of viewing the M.C. Escher drawing Ascending-Descending; it looks like it should work but upon closer inspection something is off balance or disconnected. Learning the history of a system can clarify its current structure. History that continues to define and drive current interactions is easy to miss in our rapid 24-hour news cycle culture. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodward provides a thought-provoking overview of how the history of each region continues to influence the current community’s actions and values in more complex, subtle ways than the red-blue binary view routinely used.

Systems can be diagrammed more easily than the personal relationships that are key to creating healthy families, coalitions, and communities. The value placed on relationships is one of the reasons I appreciate working in ZERO TO THREE. When supporting state and community collaborations through ZERO TO THREE’s technical assistance to Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting, Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems, Project LAUNCH, and HealthyStart programs, I enjoy fostering system growth through encouraging new partnerships, breaking out of historical habits to involve additional stakeholders. On a recent technical assistance visit to Hawaii, I saw how that state is combining their history and cultural value for the extended family to create the ‘Ohana Nui framework (“One Family”) for their state early childhood system. The framework is an expanded and enriched two-generation approach integrated into all programs and community services. When stakeholders are defined as your cousins, there is a different starting point for community conversations. (See The History of ‘Ohana Nui: Transformation of the Hawaii Department of Human Services)

As in families, systems develop ways to avoid discussions about sensitive topics. Generally, our personal and public conversations about race and ethnic disparities are still incomplete and uneasy. To make progress on health equity, we cannot avoid learning and acknowledging the complex history of race relations in the U.S. Living in Charlottesville and dealing with the aftermath of the demonstrations and violence of August 12th, 2017, I know there is no quick individual or community healing from a history of racial injustice. Conversations over the past 2 years have been painful, sad, and frustrating. Meals, music, art, community projects, and worship have created opportunities for sharing. Seeing the world through another’s experience and listening for understanding involve risk to one’s own beliefs. Like the optical illusions of the face/vase or the young woman/old woman, once you really see from the other’s point of view, once you see what was right before you, you can’t go back to seeing only the old way. Healing happens through hopeful efforts to create fair, truthful relationships that build new futures.

This hope is related to resilience. The belief that change can happen is a spiritual or ethical component in systems that is hard to measure but surely essential to consider as a resource within the group and within oneself when providing technical assistance. In recent years, I have found poetry is essential to my own spiritual renewal and a way of deepening my understanding other people’s point of view and cultures. Poetry speaks to our current dilemmas and our community health, capturing succinctly experiences that would take tomes of narrative to explain. To read “Home” by the English-Somali poet Warsan Shire reveals the desperation driving immigration and raises questions that necessitate answers, (Why the war? How does one survive years in a refugee camp? And why is the frightened individual alone in an attempt for safety?). In just a few words, Langston Hughes (“Let America be America Again”) or Maya Angelou (“Still I Rise”) capture the personal pain from decades of racial injustice, inspiring determination to work for equity. Joy Harjo is the current U.S. Poet Laureate and first Native American to hold the post. In “Eagle Poem”, she portrays a moment of natural beauty with layered meaning of universal and cultural significance. Then, there are the poems that resonate with our own family experiences and our work promoting the social-emotional health of infants and toddlers. Relationships are bi-directional; the parent discovers the world with the child (Gregory Orr, “Father’s Song”).

One of my earliest memories is of my father comforting me. I was 2½ years old. We were moving so my older brother could go to a better school. My best friend was visiting to say good-bye. She bit me. I remember being distressed not by the bite but by the unanswered question “Why did she do that?” Reflecting on the “why” and how to make things better have been a constant in my life and work.

Editor’s Note: Look for the post title, “Deepening Our Understanding of Others’ Points of View” On MemberConnect and respond to Cathy’s reflections and share your own ways of developing connections with the communities you serve

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