Educator and community organizer Khem joins the show to discuss some expanded ways of thinking and teaching.

In His Own Words…

An architect of the Declaration of Independence, yet a slave-owner himself, Thomas Jefferson made troubling yet insightful observations in his “Notes on the State of Virginia:”

“They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning… Their griefs are transient.

“Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them… Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior… in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous” (Jefferson, 1781,163).

These words provoked anguish, resentment, and pity in the pit of my stomach when first reading them. Imagine my surprise during my World History class at Fisk University when my professor revealed Thomas Jefferson as the author of this testimony. Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of this remarkable nation; the most prominent proponent of public education in this country’s early history. How could I not question the practices of the educational system which grooms our country’s doctors, physicians, and lawyers?

Have Jefferson’s views persisted into the present and, if so, what are the effects? How do we address these outcomes? In search of answers and solutions, I have decided to study community health as a concentration within the field of public health, where the effects of social inequity are arguably most evident.

Through employment, political actions, and canvassing experiences with Nashville based nonprofits and schools, I became versed in much about community engagement, policy reform, and cultural competency. After graduating from Fisk University, I worked as a behavior coach at a behavioral school in Nashville. Unfortunately, many children I worked with had been prescribed psychiatric medication since as early as five years old for mood disorders. In spite of the disruptive side-effects of the medications, I was able to learn the children’s stories well. It was clear to me that these behavioral disorders stemmed from ACEs and environmental stress, rather than a chemical imbalance.

Despite this, every month, the students’ prescriptions were reviewed and adjusted by a psychiatrist who had no lived experience in the communities the students belonged to. The school I was contracted by once even barred a student I was very close with from attending class because he refused his medication. He stated that he felt “better than usual” and wanted to have a good day of his own free will. The idea that he was then forced to miss instructional time and instead was being physically contained broke my spirit. My stomach turned while hearing him cry after giving up. The same way my stomach turned when I read Jefferson’s writings.

Thomas Jefferson predicted farther on in his observations that descendants of slave owners would see the treatment of Africans and their descendants, “and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal… and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.” (Jefferson,1781,178) Centuries later, Jefferson’s predictions seem to hold true, because despite the extensive training physicians and other public servants receive, out-dated social attitudes influence their belief that black people are genetically inferior, and thus victims of faulty construction, rather than circumstance. These thoughts may sound idealistic, but how could that student’s day have played out differently in an environment where institutions prioritize community engagement and cultural competency? How would this young boy’s day play out if his teachers and the administration tried to guide and encourage him through his decision by holding him accountable to his goal?

What future would be waiting for this young boy, his teaching staff, and the administration at the end of his day if he successfully made his day a good one without the pills? What future would have awaited the teaching staff and administration if the boy did not succeed, but he gained a newfound trust and respect for them as a result of them supporting his attempt and holding him accountable during the process?

Unfortunately for that child and too many others, we may never have an answer. Children are not only victims in their own communities, surrounded by traumatic circumstances, but also in the hands of systems that treat them as incapable of making decisions in their own treatment. My aim is to proceed towards a doctorate in Public Health so that I may study healthcare professionals, and how their experiences and background affect best practices for both teaching and administering healthcare. This goal and my experience align with the recent studies published by Meharry
Medical College related to reducing gun-violence among teenagers (Guinn et al., 2013) and using early childhood intervention to address adult health outcomes (Heckman et al.,2013).

When given the opportunity, I will continue to further this research to create culturally appropriate interventions that coincide with a broader, more inclusive definition of ACEs, it’s outcomes, and other measures of environmental stress which contribute to mental and physical health disparities.

I am also very much attracted to the prospect of working within the Center for Health Policy as a way to give back to the communities of Nashville and Tennessee that has given so much to me. I stand as a son, brother, teacher, caregiver, and academic that will not forget the griefs of the voiceless in this country, that dares to imagine a future that is vibrant and full of the beauty of humanity which beckons us to love and care for one another undoubtedly. To pursue a Masters of Public Health at Meharry Medical College and continue my work as volunteering Tennessean would be an honor.

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