Last Friday I had the honor of speaking at a celebration of 12 years of service of Sharon Sayles Belton as a member of the Hennepin Health Services board. In addition to that service, Sharon served as a Minneapolis City Council member for 10 years and in 1994 was sworn in as Mayor of Minneapolis, the first woman and first African-American to hold that position. In my remarks I quoted from her January 1994 inaugural address. At this time, when Minneapolis and Minnesota are struggling with inequities and racial tensions, I think it’s appropriate for us to consider what Mayor Sayles Belton said in that address 21 years ago. It certainly harmonizes with our Triple Aim of Health Equity, our new Strategic Plan, and our vision of health equity – where all communities are thriving and all people have what they need to be healthy. Here are her words and challenge for all of us:
“We are living in an era in which change takes place with astonishing speed…an era challenged by complexity, by an increasingly diverse population, and by ever-closer personal, social and business ties with people and cultures from all over the world.
“Today, as we stand at this crossroad and consider which paths to pursue…our community will not be served by clinging stubbornly to old ways of thinking and acting. That is why it is important on this day…that we take time to search out and study the maps and landmarks of our past and present that can serve us reliably as we move through change into the future. …
“First we must look within ourselves, to the things that we value and believe in….I believe we share community values, values that transcend race, economic status, individual need and ambition; values that constitute the framework of our society and community life. …
“We value our children, and know that our future lies in their hands.
“We value strong families, and know that only they can provide our children a safe and protective environment, and teach them the values of respect, education, responsibility and hard work.
“We value the entire community's role in the lives of our children, because it takes "a whole village"--or city--to raise a child. That means it takes community systems that work--schools that truly educate, neighbors that provide safety, health care for every child.
“These are our community values…based on an assumption of our own intrinsic goodness and that of our neighbor, and on the hope that each one of us can and must make the world a little bit better. …
“Americans like to say we are strong because we are founded on a tradition of tolerance--that we are nurtured by diversity. Living peacefully and creatively with diversity is the great American experiment.
“Minneapolis, like our state and our nation, has become increasingly diverse. We are a multiracial, multicultural, multilingual city. We are a kaleidoscope of skin colors, a tapestry of ethnic traditions, a treasury of spiritual beliefs, and a forge of ideas, perspectives and talents igniting in dialogue.
“Diversity fuels our creativity, makes us stronger and more resourceful, and serves, if we let it, as a pilot light for the virtues of humility, generosity, and peacemaking.
“But diversity can breed distrust, tension, and even violence. While it is our unique strength, it is also our unique challenge. That is why it is important, at this time in our city's history, to continue the traditions of tolerance and understanding that have guided us in our best moments. We must explore our diversity, embrace it, and harness it in the name of the common good. We must invent new ways of making decisions, based on consensus and cooperation….
“Our city is important. It is our family, our neighbors, our shops, our leisure, our financial base. It is the trees that shade us, the lakes that delight us, the water we drink and the air we breathe. We are its stewards. Each one of us bears responsibility for its health and prosperity.
“If we face escalating violence, we cannot turn to the police to resolve the problem single-handedly. The entire community must participate in the hard work of articulating and demanding compliance with our shared values.
“If we face a shortage of jobs, we cannot ask the business community to create employment without the support of schools, health and social services, transportation, day care, and government itself. …
“And if our land and our lakes,…are poisoned and slowly dying from pollution, then industry leaders and homeowners alike must become better caretakers, to ensure that these resources will survive, to sustain and be enjoyed by our children, and our children's children.
“We are a vibrant community, a brilliant and diverse family, living in a beautiful green and blue--and sometimes snowy white--city on the rich Midwestern prairie, blessed with abundant natural and human resources. We are blessed with everything we need. If we fail to remain true to our values, to our traditions, and to each other, and thereby fail to rise to the occasion of our own survival, it will only be because we lack the courage.
“Therefore…I ask every elected official, every city worker, and every citizen of this city to make a resolution--no, an oath--to this city:
- to find common ground, and to profess privately and publicly our common values--in spite of our differences;
- to commit ourselves--in spite of our doubts,
- to listen--in spite of our certainties,
- to persist--in spite of our failures, and,
- in spite of our fears,-- to allow ourselves -- to be guided by our basic humanity.”
This address is a great articulation of public health – what we do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy.