On Saturday, while participating in this summer’s first Open Streets event, lines from a couple Maya Angelou poems kept running through my mind. Given that Angelou had died just three days earlier and that I was biking with members of the Major Taylor Bicycle Club (an African-American bike club) through north Minneapolis, I wasn't surprised that verses from "Still I Rise" and "Million Man March" were rising into my consciousness and marching through my brain.
Biking down Humboldt Avenue North and seeing the remnants of the house and tree damage caused by the tornado 3 years ago and the foreclosed homes and vacant lots caused by predatory lending of the last decade and years of community-level poverty, I could hear the poet clearly lament:
The night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.
Million Man March
But the mood was not one of sadness or defeat. Instead, there was joy in the air and it was contagious as our group pedaled through the neighborhood. There were bikers everywhere. Those who weren't biking were laughing, waving, and enjoying the spectacle. Many of the vacant lots were slowly being reclaimed by sprouting vegetables – part of a network of community gardens. Schools and churches along the route were offering food and music. Dance groups were performing on temporary stages at several venues. Tents put up by community agencies lined the streets and offered education, information, connections, and water. And community members were beaming as they interacted with each other. Among this hubbub I could envision a triumphant smile on the face of Maya Angelou as she demanded:
I say, clap hands and let's come together in this meeting ground,
I say, clap hands and let's deal with each other with love,
I say, clap hands and let us get from the low road of indifference,
Clap hands, let us come together and reveal our hearts,
Let us come together and revise our spirits,
Let us come together and cleanse our souls
Clap hands, call the spirits back from the ledge,
Clap hands, let us invite joy into our conversation,
Million Man March
And there was joy in this Open Streets community-building conversation/event that couldn't be dampened even by the threat of rain.
Our Advancing Health Equity report outlined many of the policies and structural inequities that have disadvantaged communities of color and American Indians in our state and it highlighted many of the health disparities that have resulted. It did one of the things that public health is supposed to do - redefine the unacceptable. What hasn't received as much attention is the more uplifting role of public health that the report suggested – assure the conditions in which people can be healthy. Engaging and empowering communities in creating opportunities to be healthy is one of the best ways to do that. Community engagement and empowerment is what I saw rising up last weekend in one of the poorest and most stressed neighborhoods in Minneapolis.
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Still I Rise
Despite the magnitude and seeming intractability of the disparities in our state, I am optimistic that we can achieve health equity. Community after community is showing us how to make that happen. Health equity is on the rise.