In Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book published before his assassination, he reflected on the civil rights movement and asked, “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?”
That same question resonates today, said Howard Pinderhughes, PhD, during the 2017 UCSF Last Lecture, in which he highlighted the importance of community and social justice in tackling health care challenges.
Now in its sixth year, the UCSF Last Lecture has become an annual tradition in which a UCSF faculty member is nominated and selected by students to answer the question: “If you had but one lecture to give, what would you say?”
Like many who have delivered Last Lectures at UCSF, Pinderhughes outlined the trajectory of his own life and career – he is associate professor and chair of social and behavioral sciences in the School of Nursing – but traced the lines of influence back in time, to his slave ancestors, and outwards, to the communities around the world that have shaped him, from the middle-class Boston neighborhood in which he grew up, to Denmark, Cuba and the East Bay.
His talk covered the experiences that have led to his work studying the effects of violence on youth and their communities. And he urged the students in attendance to dream big and to think beyond healing individuals to transforming institutions in order to heal communities.
Informed by History
For Pinderhughes, seeing the historical records that listed his great-grandmother, who was a slave, along with cattle as property, made slavery less of an abstraction. “When you find your ancestors, the intergenerational trauma becomes real,” he said.
He also recalled how his grandfather Joe, who had dementia in his later years, seemed to say, repeatedly, “It’s a shame to leave a man without a coat.” It wasn’t until later that he understood his grandpa was saying, “It’s a shame to lynch a man without a court.”
“In dementia, that was his reality that he retained,” said Pinderhughes.
Pinderhughes grew up in Roxbury, a mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood of Boston that was predominantly Jewish and African-American. His father was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who taught at Boston University and Harvard University and his mother ran a family therapy clinic. They went to the March on Washington as a family.
The 1965 murder of Rev. James Reeb, who was white, and was helping to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches had a deep effect on Pinderhughes as a child. “For weeks I was scared of white people, but it was also profound to understand that there are allies in this struggle willing to lay their life on the line for social justice,” he said.
Riots in 1967 burned down much of the economic infrastructure of Roxbury, and for decades, the only thing of substance that got built was the juvenile jail. The neighborhood transitioned into a poor community with high rates of poverty and violence. In 1992, the subway system was redirected to bypass Roxbury altogether.
“It informs how I understand the world, why I do what I do,” said Pinderhughes of these early experiences.
Communities Around the World
As a young man, Pinderhughes lived in Denmark for three years working on American Pictures, a multimedia project about race in America, and these years helped him understand the power of the word in communicating to people about the issue of race.
He returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school at UC Berkeley and participated in the student actions that led to the University of California divesting from South Africa’s apartheid government. “As students, you need to understand the power you have,” he said.
To study violence in young people, he moved to New York City and then spent six months living in Cuba, where he hoped to study the same topic. “I went there looking for youth violence and ultimately found they didn’t have any,” he said of Cuba. “Why? The communities are so intact and so resilient they’re able to handle the problems young people and children are subject to.”
These experiences gave his work a clear focus: healing the community. In his research, Pinderhughes studies social determinants of health, including the lasting impact of violence on youth in urban communities. He has learned that achieving social change requires taking leadership from the community and a willingness to do policy work.
In closing, Pinderhughes urged the UCSF community to “dare to dream big about what we can do,” and to be as ambitious in transforming the social elements of health as we are in pioneering stem cell science, revolutionizing precision medicine, and finding cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s.
“How cool would it be for UCSF to receive a Nobel Prize for achieving health equity?” he asked.
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