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Consider Yourself a Community Healer

By Risa Wilkerson on December 13th, 2017

“How many of you are ministers?” the speaker asked. Years ago at a spiritual growth retreat, I kept my hand down. I wasn’t trained to lead congregations. He went on to share stories of what ministry looks like in action: people helping each other. By the end of the retreat when he asked the question again, everyone raised their hand.

That question also applies to health, and I borrowed it for a presentation to a multi-sector audience. “How many of you are in the health field?” I asked. Only those from healthcare and public health sectors raised their hands. I continued by sharing examples of how all sectors of the community—transportation, housing, education, economic development, recreation, urban design, architecture, social services…everything—can impact community health. At the end of my presentation, I asked the question again and all hands went up.

And sometimes to create health, we must first heal the broken systems that shape our lives.

Toxic stress caused by violent and unhealthy environments not only makes it difficult for children to learn and grow, but also often leads to a diseased adulthood. Families are struggling to find healthy and affordable food in their neighborhoods, to overcome asthma in poorly maintained public housing, to avoid sugary beverages when their tap water is contaminated with lead, and too much more.

Meanwhile, anger- and fear- invoking language in our social spheres pits one group against another. We are blaming and shaming while refusing to see how our systems are perfectly designed to get the (imperfect) results we have.

What if, instead, we all considered ourselves to be community healers? What if we looked at the broken systems and sought avenues to fix them so that every community supports all people to reach their full potential?

I recently attended a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee meeting in Memphis, TN. One of the presenters was Sharon Griffin, Chief of Schools for Shelby County Schools District. She shared this idea: What if, instead of asking “What’s wrong with them?” when children misbehave, we ask “What happened to them?” She then took teachers into their students’ neighborhoods because, as she pointed out, “you can’t change what you don’t understand.”

Do you feel that shift? Rather than blaming and shaming, Sharon was asking them to think of themselves not just as teachers, but also as healers.

Now, rather than punish misbehavior, teachers first explore notions that a child might be hungry, or have witnessed abuse, or have been bullied on the way to school. These considerations are sometimes framed as a pair of ACES (adverse childhood experiences rooted in adverse community environments) and require us all to do our part.

So, are you a community healer? I hope your hand is raised.

Image source: Ellis W. & Dietz W. BCR Framework. Academic Peds (2017).


Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.