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Struggling Urban Family Is Weather Vane for Unhealthy Society


Mindy Fullilove, M.D., says wildly divergent media images of Michelle Obama are evidence of an unstable society.
Photo by Chris Taggart

America is an unhealthy society, and it will take individuals and organizations of faith to fix it.

That was the consensus that emerged at a panel discussion on March 19 at “The State of the Urban Family: An Introduction to Faith-Based Interventions and Resources,” a one-day symposium sponsored by the Fordham Graduate School of Social Service’s Bertram M. Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty and the GSS Alumni Association.

The panel members explored the importance and effectiveness of faith-based organizations in helping the poor.

“What has eroded is the whole base of a diverse, productive and innovative economy,” said Mindy Fullilove, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, and author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It (Random House, 2004).

“It does not matter to this economy how many trillions they inject into it . . . it is not going to solve the rottenness underneath.”

Dr. Fullilove cited dismal statistics from United for a Fair Economy on the urban poor, notably that children born in the bottom 20 percent of household incomes have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of income earners.

What contributes to such lack of opportunity, she said, is America’s “disposable” attitude toward its own people throughout history—from its slaves to its farmers to its manufacturing base and, lately, even its service workers as it has begun to export service industry jobs.

“If you think of Detroit as a disposable city, is it not possible to imagine such a thing as a disposable nation?” she asked.

Using newspapers and magazines as “sounding cards” for what is going on in a society, Dr. Fullilove cited wildly divergent images of Michelle Obama—from “terrorist fist-pumper” on the cover of the New Yorker months ago, to an “American icon” on a recent cover of New York magazine. America is angry and unstable, she said, and if a society is not stable, she said, it is not possible for its urban families to be stable.

The nation’s hope lies in a grassroots model similar to that of Jane Addams’ Hull House, she said. The Chicago-based Hull House was one of the first settlement houses serving the poor around the turn of the 20th century that advocated for progressive legislative reforms, such as child labor laws, women’s suffrage and healthcare. It is often thought to have been the seed for social welfare programs.

Addams, Dr. Fullilove said, had a “fundamental systemic understanding” that society’s ills were her ills, too, and thus she was working to “fix it for herself.”

She also lived among the disenfranchised, both to experience their needs and to network with communities on solutions. Lastly, Addams worked to create laws and policies from the ground up, as opposed to top-down.

“The policies of Hull House became the policies of the New Deal,” she said. “But there is no Hull House today holding up the gold standard of innovation, no institution or voice driving policy.

“[Social workers] must go where the problems are, and live with the problem,” she said. “There is no escaping our common fate, so we must lift our voices, and dig into our institutions. There is a Jane Addams among us who will give us hope.”

The Rev. Dr. Floyd H. Flake, former congressman and pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, said that it takes “transformational leadership” to rebuild the urban family.

He created a faith-based development corporation and runs a charter elementary school for several hundred students.

Flake has also worked diligently to raise housing values in his heavily immigrant district.

“A transformational leader must look beyond merely social needs,” Flake said, “and create possibilities [so]that the next generation will not be left behind.”

Other speakers included Ram Cnaan, Ph.D., professor of social welfare in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, and Derek Suite, M.D., co-founder and president and medical director of the award-winning mental health practice Full Circle Health.

The conference culminated in a series of 12 workshops sponsored by 14 faith-based agencies in the city, including the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the Jewish Child Care Association and New York Catholic Charities.


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