The world shifted last night
Today was a very sad and painful day for many in the country even as others exulted. Within the Gillings School, we took time this morning to reflect and talk about how we felt; words like sad and devastated were mentioned frequently. Occasionally, the word motivated was spoken, a hopeful sign of action amid the grief. Steve Regan, assistant dean for human resources, did a great job of eliciting feelings, and we provided space for both sadness and hope. It’s been a very difficult election and, for many, an unthinkable outcome.
As a public employee and dean, I’ve tried to cultivate a nonpartisan spirit throughout this campaign, encouraging civility and the values we, in public health, stand for—including diversity, inclusion, fairness for all, a welcoming environment, health care as a right, voting as a right and responsibility, and data and scientific evidence to support what we do. So many of you did this also.
I grew up in a time when my high school math teacher said he wasn’t going to spend time on me because I’d just get married and have children. I was told the same thing by my Michigan adviser the first week of college. As a college student, I worked to find physicians to provide reproductive health services for Michigan students who needed them. I know what it is to live in a country where women must go to back-alley abortionists, cash in hand.
I don’t want us to go back to those times.
I was moved deeply when, finally, there was a woman at the top of the ballot.
When I held that ballot in my hand, the day I voted early, it was more emotional than I’d expected. I’d have felt that regardless of the party. I had no illusions that the candidate was perfect. None of us is.
So much about the 2016 election was nasty, uncivil, and there were far too few solutions presented given the complexity of the role of president. I’ve worked in government, and there are fabulous, dedicated and truly committed government employees. I bristle when people demean “Washington” or “the government.” Without intelligent governance, there can be no civil society. The next president must learn that lesson.
Last night, I sat for a while and watched returns with a woman of mixed race whose children are on Medicaid, and she said that because of the Affordable Care Act, she had health insurance for the first time in her life. When she discovered a lump in her breast, it was the first time she didn’t worry about going to a doctor because of the cost. Now, she fears that her health insurance will be taken away. Most of us in public health believe that health care is a right, and that sometimes, people need a hand up. It’s our responsibility as a society to provide that. Most of us want to live in a country that does right by people and recognizes that no one gets where they are entirely on their own. We don’t want immigrants to feel unsafe or unwanted. I want every diverse individual and everyone else to feel safe, valued and needed.
During the campaign and, especially, election night, like many of you, I worried about the ways our nation could change during the next presidency. This morning, I went to the Wellness Center, which was unusually quiet, and Chris, who works at the front desk, asked me how I was. Before I even realized it, I blurted out, “I am not America today.”
I had been thinking about the Langston Hughes poem, I guess.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
The world has shifted, and for many, the new president-elect was unexpected. But as Secretary Clinton, President Obama and others have stated well, the American way is the orderly transition of power. The new administration will be our reality, and we must use all our skills to work effectively with them. Although I had that moment of anger and disillusion, I am America, too, and we are America. As people in public health, we must continue to aim high for our mission—to improve public health, promote individual well-being and eliminate health inequities across North Carolina and around the world.
Gillings School leaders are committed that this school will be welcoming, diverse and civil. We respect differences of all kinds, including political differences. We will try to understand better the perspectives of the people who voted differently from the way we voted and reach toward them. We will not tolerate incivility.
We also will not shrink from our fundamental values, including diversity and inclusion as fundamental to our excellence, civility as a central operating principle and health care as a right, even when those views are unfashionable. Many of us lived through too many years when health insurance for most was close but turned out to be unachievable. We must seek positive, collective ways to act on behalf of those values. Public health is a force for good, and we should harness that force … now. One of the ways to do that might be to find more effective ways to talk about and persuade stakeholders about why affordable health insurance is a necessary investment. Across all schools of public health, we could be an army for equity. We’ll have to talk about it differently than we have in the past.
Today was a hard day for many, and I so hope that our new leaders will have the wisdom and humility to reach toward those who did not support them. I’ve lived through many elections, even unhappy ones, and still believe in this country. Eventually, we get it right. Whatever happens elsewhere, we will do the right things at Gillings. Barbara