Down and Out in L.A.

IMG_6660Los Angeles, what with its population of over 40,000 people who are homeless and with the nation’s largest concentration of chronic homelessness, is an interesting (and distressing) city to live in. Or to visit. Unless you limit yourself to staying within the sanitized realms of either Disneyland or La-la Hollywood-land.

I was in downtown L.A. for four days recently to attend a national writers conference, but also to see if I could get some sort of context to the problem of homelessness in this giant car-centric sprawl of city–a city like no other. Not being from Los Angeles, it is difficult to decipher what is real and what is just another stage set. Where else would Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of Mad Men saunter through a writers conference and serve as guest editor for a literary magazine’s special edition on advertising writing? (Yes, this really happened, and yes, he is even more handsome in person.) And where else would car crash scenes complete with dazed people staggering around with bloody heads happen right outside one’s hotel? (Yes, this really happened as I was trying to walk from my hotel to an art museum–I almost stepped in to help out with the human carnage before I realized it was actually a stage set.)

On my first day in L.A. I noticed these curious ‘private property’ bronze plaques all over the sidewalks. They basically say, “Move along all you tempest-tossed tired and homeless. Move along. You don’t belong here.”

 

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And these homeless- deterring benches at bus stops. Although–look closely–this one comes with its own food pantry. A man pushing a shopping cart nearby who stopped to inspect these cans told me that people drop off food for the homeless and that cans of vegetables don’t get picked up very quickly. He happens to like vegetables and took all the cans.IMG_6614 I had arranged to do a site visit at the Homeless Health Care Los AngelesCenter for Harm Reduction in the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. The director, Mark Casanova, graciously gave me a tour of the facility and talked with me about their work. I’ve visited the Insite safe injection center in Vancouver, BC, so I thought I knew what to expect. Insite is North America’s first and only legally-sanctioned safe injection site and syringe (‘needle’) exchange, although several cities in the U.S.–including my hometown of Seattle–are considering opening one to help address the current heroin epidemic. (See Seattle Times article, “Heroin, cocaine users in Seattle may get country’s first safe-use site,’ by Daniel Beekman, April 4, 2016 for more information.)

 

IMG_6656Visiting the L.A. Center for Harm Reduction with Casanova while it was in operation was an eye-opening experience for me even though I have long been ‘sold’ on the concept and practice of harm reduction: treat people in a non-judgemental and respectful manner and work beside them to find ways to minimize harm to themselves and to other people. From a public health perspective we know that this approach works to save lives and protect everyone’s health.

The eye-opening part was mainly the sheer scale of the need for services such as those provided by the Center for Harm Reduction. They have a syringe exchange that must be one of the largest in North America in terms of quantity of ‘needles’ exchanged. They serve an average of 145 people per day. They also have an on-site wound care clinic and soon will add an on-site drug treatment program. And they have a very successful overdose prevention program where they train clients in the proper use of Naloxone (also known as ‘Narcan’), a non-addicting prescription drug that temporarily blocks and reverses the effects of opioids (prescription opioid pain medications, as well as heroin). Naloxone is available in either an injectable form or a nasal spray. So far, the Center for Harm Reduction, through their own on-site staff and through their street-based program, have prevented over 400 overdose deaths. Here is a photo of the current map showing their overdose reversals. Remember, one of these lives saved could have been your daughter, son, friend, etc.

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Notice the sign in the photo below, asking clients to report police harassment, especially in terms of confiscation of either their syringes or Naloxone/Narcan. Los Angeles has a problem with criminalizing homelessness. Not just with bizarre ‘Private Property’ bronze sidewalk signs and with arrests for and confiscation of drug paraphernalia,  but also with a limitation on the ‘size’ of homeless rough sleepers’ personal belongings. The day before I toured the Center for Harm Reduction, L.A. City Council had just passed a resolution limiting the rough sleepers to whatever personal items (including tents, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, and food) to what can fit into a 60 gallon container. They say the rest will be confiscated and destroyed. IMG_6618

On a much happier, up with people note, I was impressed by the fact that the Center for Harm Reduction has a companion Healing, Arts and Wellness program next door where they provide space for arts and writing programs, karaoke, a lending library, yoga, acupuncture and cranio-sacral treatment, Zumba fitness classes, and life-skills training. Here are some of my photographs of this very health-promoting space and artwork by participants. Thank you Mark Casanova and all the wonderful staff of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles for all the important work you do.

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Home is…

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Community blue tarp tapestry/ Soul Stories project. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2016

Home-less-ness. Un-homed. Being without “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” 

Where did you sleep last night? Was it in a warm, dry, and safe place?

If you were asked to summarize the essential meaning of home to you in one word or in a brief phrase, what would it be?

As human beings we have to have rest–and sleep–in order to not only thrive, but survive. Sleep is the ultimate letting go and trusting that we will not be disturbed, that we will be okay until we awaken. The trust we have through undisturbed sleep generates hope.

What does it mean to be homeless when home was never a safe place? In such cases, it is not possible for young people to ‘runaway’ from home; they can only run towards home.

Housing, ‘home-ing,’ is a form of health care. The people at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council summarize this connection with the following:

  • “Poor health (illness, injury and/or disability) can cause homelessness when people have insufficient income to afford housing. This may be the result of being unable to work or becoming bankrupted by medical bills.
  • Living on the street or in homeless shelters exacerbates existing health problems and causes new ones. Chronic diseases, such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, mental health problems and other ongoing conditions, are difficult to manage under stressful circumstances and may worsen. Acute problems such as infections, injuries, and pneumonia are difficult to heal when there is no place to rest and recuperate.
  • Living on the street or in shelters also brings the risk of communicable disease (such as STDs or TB) and violence (physical, sexual, and mental) because of crowded living conditions and the lack of privacy or security. Medications to manage health conditions are often stolen, lost, or compromised due to rain, heat, or other factors.”

For those of us fortunate enough to be currently housed and ‘homed’ in a ‘fixed, regular, and adequate [and safe] nighttime residence’–for those of us who are able to have adequate, safe, undisturbed, restorative-of-hope sleep–let us all remember (or imagine if we’ve never experienced it) what it is like for people who go without these essential human needs. And let us use our rest, our trust, our hope to fix this ‘wicked problem’ of homelessness.

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Notes:

  • The blue tarp tapestry shown in this photo is from my Soul Stories project, and specifically from the ‘Way Out; Way Home’ installation art (in progress). I ask people who view/participate in this installation to contemplate the meaning of home for them. They then are invited to write or draw the word or phase on a strip of paper, the strips are then added to the blue trap tapestry wallhanging weaving.
  • The connection between sleep and trust and hope was inspired by my current research for the Soul Stories project on the role of narrative in health and healing in the context of homeless. Specifically, this concept comes from anthropologist Hirokazu Miyazaki’s essay/chapter, “Hope in the Gift–Hope in Sleep” in Anthropology and Philosophy: Dialogues in Trust and Hope, edited by Sune Liisberg, Esther Oluffa Pedersen, and Anne Line Dalsgard, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015).
  • I want to acknowledge the generous support of the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding support for my Soul Stories public scholarship digital humanities project.

Homelessness Visible: A Photo Essay

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House not for sale. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015.

The story of homelessness, visible, in my hometown of Seattle, told through photographs and a few accompanying words.

Here, on my daily walk in my neighborhood. Derelict housing, seemingly deserted, unless you know what to look for. Scattered clothing. A tattered backpack.

And this, a most unusual lawn ornament. The 700 metric ton glacial erratic ‘Lone Rock’ now known as the ‘Wedgewood Erratic.’ According to the City of Seattle, it is illegal to climb this rock. But I don’t think it is illegal to camp near it. Hence, this recent living room armchair. And a tent (removed during the day). In the background (the boxy building to the far right), note the supremely ugly new construction ‘single family home’ on the market for a mere $1.4 million dollars. In one of Seattle’s ‘working class’ neighborhoods.

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‘Lone Rock’ and Lone Chair, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2016

Yesterday, during a fierce windstorm, there was this homeless encampment in the doorway of an empty store at a busy intersection near my home. A man and a woman were working hard to keep their belongings from blowing away. Note the new (upscale) apartment buildings and the large crane in the hole that will be the new Roosevelt Light Rail Station.

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Homeless in a Seattle Doorway. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2016

And then there are the numerous unofficial ‘tent cities’ and other temporary shelters that all combine to make homelessness in Seattle very, very visible. In follow-up posts I’ll critique the current ‘state of emergency’ of homelessness declared by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray four months ago.

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Man asleep in chair by Seattle city park. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015
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Homeless encampment on Seattle sidewalk. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015

Endurance Test

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“No Resilience Here” mixed media, 2015, Josephine Ensign

What helps us—as health care providers, as caregivers, as people, as communities— endure the various traumas and sufferings we’re exposed to indirectly and that we experience ourselves?

Resilience is something that is often cited as an answer to this question. Resilience is a term that has been adapted from engineering to describe the ability of a substance, such as a metal, to return to its previous state after being stressed—the substance is able to bounce back, to return to steady state, to normal. The American Psychological Association definition of resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.” Resilience is sometimes referred to as ‘good survival.’

Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of research on resilience, mainly focusing on individual risk and protective factors. The main protective factors are, not surprisingly: 1) the formation of a firm, secure attachment to a parent or caretaker figure within the first few years of life; 2) prosocial behaviors and personality traits, such as empathy, a positive attitude, capacity for forgiveness, and ability to ‘play well with others’; and 3) a sense of personal agency, of being able to act, to do something positive both in the midst and the wake of trauma. The main risk factors are, not surprisingly, the opposite of the protective factors.

Most research on resilience has focused on the individual, is Western-centric, and has increasingly become biologically reductionist, narrowing in on the epigenetics of trauma and resilience, finding individuals and entire communities of people with ‘short alleles’ and DNA methylation—genetic markers of increased vulnerability to the adverse effects of trauma. That these are most often individuals and communities already marginalized by poverty and racism and other socially-constructed vulnerabilities, serves to further label and pathologize people and communities. It marks them as damaged goods. As irredeemably, permanently damaged goods. It typically ignores the mounting research evidence indicating that such epigenetic damage is largely reversible and preventable with appropriate life experiences—with access to appropriate life experiences, including effective therapeutic interventions.

Resilience-building interventions include cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy; therapies focused on building the capacity for empathy and forgiveness; narrative storytelling and other meaning-making therapies; and therapies aimed at increasing social support—social support that includes social touch—the human version of primate grooming. Good touch: a handshake, a peck on the cheek, or a hug in greeting; a hand brushing a shoulder in sympathy; sitting close to a stranger on a bus; washing the feet of people who are homeless, people who are rarely touched in a good way.

This all sounds good, but resilience irritates me. The whole saccharine notion that the human body, the human psyche, and even entire communities can be like heated metal—stressed and stretched but not broken—that they can bounce back, return to steady state, and perhaps be stronger and wiser for the experience?  Certainly, I believe that strength-based research and interventions are an important and sizeable improvement over our traditional deficit models so prevalent within health and social services. But resilience has its dark side.

Resilience tends to glorify trauma, and contributes to an addiction to pain and to suffering: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Be the hero of your own life. Cancer saved my life, made me a better person. And Hemingway’s “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” It glosses over the fact that trauma and resilience are not equal opportunity affairs, that some people (women, children, people with various disabilities, non-whites, and gender nonconforming people), and some communities (marginalized by homelessness, poverty, racism, and the effects of colonization) are much more likely to be exposed to traumas in the first place, and they have fewer resources to weather and recover from the traumas. It ignores the larger structural inequities, as well as the stigmatizing narratives we place on certain people, communities, and entire impoverished countries. As physician, anthropologist and global health champion Paul Farmer reminds us, “The capacity to suffer is, clearly, part of being human. But not all suffering is equal, in spite of pernicious and often self-serving identity politics that suggest otherwise.” (p 288)

Trauma never happens in isolation, even if it is a one-time trauma that occurs to one individual, trauma happens within the context of a particular family, community, cultural, social, and time period. An individual trauma ripples outwards as well as inwards. Suffering from trauma is always a social process; recovering from trauma is always a social process. If suffering is a universal yet unequal human experience, being able to tell and listen to illness and trauma narratives matters. But it doesn’t stop there. Physician, anthropologist, and expert on illness narratives Arthur Kleinman admonishes us that it is the moral and emotional cores of these experiences that matter much more, including the cores of social suffering that especially affect marginalized people.

Kleinman also encourages us to ask the question, What helps us endure? “And I mean by endure withstand, live through, put up with, and suffer. I do not mean the currently fashionable and superficially optimistic idea of ‘resilience’ as denoting a return to robust health and happiness. Those who have struggled in the darkness of their own pain or loss, or that of patients or loved ones, know that these experiences, even when left behind, leave traces that may only be remembered viscerally but shape their lives beyond.” (p 119)

Note: This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Soul Stories, a collection of essays on the role of narrative in health and healing.

Sources:

Paul Farmer. ‘On suffering and structural violence: a view from below.’ In: Violence in War and Peace. Edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. (New York)/ Blackwell Publishing (2004). pp 281-289.

Arthur Kleinman. “The art of medicine: how we endure.” The Lancet. January 11, 2014. Vol 383. pp 119-120.

 

Crack Houses and Mass Incarceration

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Rooming house in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/1988

The deeply disturbing underbelly of the American life many of us have the mixed-blessing privilege of not having to confront: the racist premises of and fallout from our War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs was begun by President Reagan in 1982, and was continued by both Bush administrations, as well as by President Clinton in between the two Bush presidencies. Remember all the crack houses, crack babies, crack crimes, and Welfare Queens that were invoked to stoke the fervor and the funding for the War on Drugs?

As Michelle Alexander points out in her excellent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2011), President Reagan began the War on Drugs before crack cocaine was introduced into impoverished, mainly African American inner-city neighborhoods as a ‘cheap high’ substitute for the high-priced White Collar cocaine. All of the ensuing efforts to get ‘tough on crime’ and ‘one strike–you’re out’ have resulted in the U.S. now having highest rate of incarceration in the world. We also have the highest proportion of our racial and ethnic minorities incarcerated. In fact, we have a larger percentage of our black population imprisoned than did South Africa under the height of Apartheid.

The War on Drugs hasn’t made us any safer, as various politicians have tried to make us believe over the past thirty years. It has made us sicker in body, mind, and soul–all of us. It has contributed to a worsening of health inequities since incarceration leads to a never-ending system of debt, to permanent disenfranchisement by taking away people’s voting rights, and of making it almost impossible for people to find jobs and housing once they are released from prison. Not to mention the negative health effects of incarceration on families. I have worked in prisons and in juvenile detention and knew about many of these issues. But I had not really thought of it as a continuation of slavery, Black Codes/ Jim Crow until I read this book and participated in a University of Washington Teach-In on the topic last week.

Here is one of the more piercing passages of Alexander’s book:

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color–people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits–and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt–these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families.” p175.

And for an excellent recent report on the public health effects of mass incarceration, take at look at the Vera Institute for Justice’s “On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

At the end of one of the Teach-In sessions “No Sanctuary: Understanding Historical and Contemporary Intersections of Mass Incarceration, Racism, and Health,” Dr. Alexes Harris stated, “The U.S. has always had an insidious system of social control targeted at those who are racialized and poor,” and then she asked each of us audience members, “How do you perpetuate this system?” On this Presidents Day, what an excellent question to ask ourselves.

Water, Water, Clean Water (not) Everywhere

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Cook Strait ferry crossing, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

The public health (and political) crisis in Flint, Michigan over their contaminated drinking water should be sending out much louder alarm signals throughout our country. Snowmagedden 2016–from a different form of water–is drowning out the dirty water, dirty politics, and dirty failures of our public health system. Note my use of ‘our’ and not ‘their,’ which would make it oh so more comforting and at arm’s length for those of us who are not living in Flint. Contaminated water supplies can happen in our own hometowns, especially with the widespread crumbling infrastructures and a diminishing focus on public health surveillance. Access to safe, clean water is a basic human need; it should be an equal opportunity necessity. But clearly it is not.

For anyone who has missed this part of our national news, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) three days ago issued an emergency order over unsafe public water in Flint, Michigan, and assumed federal oversight of water testing and water treatment in the city of 100, 000–a city where 57% of the population is African-American and 42% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. This week President Obama declared a state of emergency over the Flint water crisis and has assigned an expert from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist in assessing the extent of lead ‘poisoning’ in children and then recommend interventions. As we know all too well, what with the effects of lead additives to household paint and gasoline, as well as other environmental sources, children’s exposure to lead has devastating effects on multiple organ systems, and especially on the developing nervous system. Lead exposure in infants (including en utero) and children is linked with cognitive deficits (lower IQ), learning and behavioral issues.

In 2014, city and state officials switched from using the nearby Detroit water supplies (which came from the much cleaner Lake Huron) to using the highly contaminated Flint River for Flint’s water, in order to save money. They also failed to treat the water appropriately to minimize lead leaching into the water supply from old pipes. And they failed to appropriately test the household water supplies, ignored residents’ complaints about green and brown and foul-smelling water. And the city and state officials, including public health officials, publicly denied there was a problem, even after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, presented them with evidence of alarmingly elevated blood lead levels in children she was seeing. As reported today in the excellent NYT article, “When the Water Turned Brown,” by Abby Goodnough, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith:

“Yet interviews, documents and emails show that as every major decision was made over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to the public health emergency and allowed it to persist for months. The government continued on its harmful course even after lead levels were found to be rising…”

People have rightfully pointed out that this is clearly a case of a willful neglect of environmental justice. If Flint, Michigan was more affluent and ‘more white’ it is highly unlikely that this problem would have started in the first place, or at least it would have been more quickly and more efficiently remedied. As the EPA defines ‘environmental justice’ on its website: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

In his characteristic no-holds-barred truth-telling way, filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore is calling for the arrest of Republican Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, claiming he helped create the water public health crisis in Flint. (See this MSNBC interview of Michael Moore by Chris Hayes, January 19, 2016.)

As a public health nurse, this complex and entirely preventable problem in Flint, makes me angry and sad. Not only because of the environmental injustice of it all. Not only for the longterm negative health consequences for the thousands of children of Flint exposed to lead through their town’s drinking water. Not only for the devastating effects on the parents of these children. But also because of how much it undermines any and all heard-earned trust people have in our public health system. That negatively affects the health and safety of all of us.

Nurse Log: A Winter Solstice Gift of Quietude

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A decorated nurse log (stump) on Orcas Island, Washington. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Recently, I spent a week ‘off the grid’ on a solo writing retreat at one of my favorite places on earth: Orcas Island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. In my experience, going off grid, off e-mail, off social media, off any news is both deeply restorative and refreshingly loopy. Restorative, of course, because the electronic umbilical cord connection with the world creates a constant anxious buzz that is typically only apparent when it is absent. Refreshingly loopy because the cessation of that baseline buzz creates space for our brains to make sudden strange connections and leaps into uncharted territory.

One of these loopy leaps for me happened through the nurse log. Anyone who has ever lived in or traveled through the soggy, glacial-scoured forests of the Pacific Northwest, is familiar with the term ‘nurse log’–an example of which I include in this post. Nurse log, as in a decaying part of an older tree (log, or stump, as in this photo) that provides the ideal environment of moisture and nutrients and even shelter from competition, for a new tree to start its life. An example of resilience, adaptation, and thriving in the face of adversity. An example of the circle of life.

A metaphor for where I am in my nursing and teaching career: on sabbatical, gone fishing, taking a break, lying fallow and untilled, at least from my usual clinical and teaching responsibilities. More time to study important things, like the state of homelessness, the role of narrative in health and healing, the history of charity health care–and the lifecycle of evergreen trees. More time for travel–not to faraway lands–but to places right here at home. More time to cultivate and appreciate quiet.

It strikes me that we don’t allow enough space and time for quiet. We now recognize the importance of quiet in hospitals to allow patients to heal from illness, trauma, and surgery–although actually providing this for patients is spotty at best. I was reminded by Health Care for the Homeless, Seattle/King County Public Health nurse Heather Barr recently that emergency and transition shelters for people experiencing homelessness are often chaotic and cacophonous places. She advocates the addition of quiet rooms and quiet hours when she works with shelter staff around implementing trauma-informed care. People who are struggling with PTSD are often triggered by noise. I’ve often observed the role of a healing quiet space in public libraries for homeless and marginalized people who otherwise don’t have such sanctuaries. As health care providers, as caregivers, as teachers we should remember the gift of stillness and of quiet.

Gratitude for Mentors

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Dr. Lorna Mill Barrell (1931-2014), a nursing mentor of mine, after lunch in the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia in 1996.

We now have the ‘science of gratitude’ to back what we’ve already known: gratitude is good for us, both individually and collectively. That we have a national holiday named for gratitude is something that–despite the complicated colonization and empire-building historical roots–I am thankful for.

Over the past four months, I have had the privilege of interviewing a variety of people in the Seattle area who work (or live) at the intersection of health and homelessness. These interviews are part of the oral history component of my ongoing Skid Road project, exploring the historical roots of ‘charity’ health care in King County, Washington (the county within which Seattle is located). One of the first open-ended interview questions I pose to people is, “Who or what has most influenced your work and life?”

People I interview typically pause for a moment after I ask this question, they gaze at some corner of the room as if seeing pleasant ghosts, and then they launch into detailed descriptions of people and events essential to who they are as people and to the work they do. Most people identify one or two key people in their lives who provided a sort of moral compass steering them in the direction of compassion–for their own humanity, as well as for other people. Parents. Teachers. Counselors or therapists. Professional mentors. They can easily tell a specific story of lessons they learned from these key people. And due to my use of snowball sampling–asking them to identify people I should try to interview–I have been able to complete oral history interviews on several generations of mentors.

These interviews have led me to reflect more deeply on the people in my life I am grateful for, people who have influenced who I am and what I do. I am also reminded of the wisdom of Rachel Naomi Remen, MD and her healing work with physicians, nurses, and other caregivers. I often introduce my students to her Heart Journal daily practice. For this, she advocates a 10-15 minute quiet time at the end of the day where you review your day, then write the first things that occur to you when you ask yourself three questions: 1) What surprised me today? 2) What moved me or touched my heart today?, and 3) What inspired me today?  Attention and gratitude.

As a nurse and a teacher, I remember two people who have had the most influence on my work, my life. One is Lorna Mill Barrell, RN, PhD who came into my life when I was seriously considering dropping out of nursing school. It was in November of 1983, my final year of the BSN program at MCV/VCU, and I had just been informed by my community health clinical instructor that she was giving me an ‘F’ on my final clinical rotation project paper. “I don’t see how this has anything to do with nursing,” she wrote across my project paper’s title, “The Health of Richmond’s Homeless Population.” I contested her grade and that’s how I met Lorna, who was the chair of the department my instructor worked in–she was my instructor’s boss.

I remember Lorna’s welcoming and nonjudgmental attitude towards me when I came into her office to meet with her about my grade. I’m sure I came across at first as indignant, haughty, and angry. At the time, I wasn’t just contesting my community health grade, I was also contesting my desire to be a nurse at all. She offered to read and re-grade my paper. Thanks to her intervention, I not only passed community health (she changed my paper grade to an ‘A’), but she helped convince me to finish nursing school and go straight into their master’s program for becoming a nurse practitioner. She was my thesis advisor and the co-author of my first published academic journal article. Within a year of graduating and starting my first job as a nurse practitioner working with homeless and marginalized patients at Cross-Over Clinic, Lorna hired me to teach a community health clinical course.

The other mentor I draw on as inspiration for my current work is another MCV/VCU teacher–from the medical school though–who I only remember as Chaplain Bob. During my first semester of the BSN program, fresh out of a brief stint in a MDiv medical humanities program, I convinced him to let me take his medical school elective course on death and dying. He approached this topic in our small seminar-style class, from a health humanities perspective, having us read and discuss Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, among other works of art and literature. He also encouraged us to write our own poetry and short stories. I took that assignment seriously and wrote a chapbook-length collection of poetry. Chaplain Bob gave me an ‘Aa’ (not entirely sure what that grade really is) for the course, but he also enthusiastically encouraged me to continue my creative, reflective writing. I kept that chapbook. And here, impossibly at age twenty-two (meaning–not that it is great poetry but that is impossibly so long ago) , I wrote:

The Process

Sitting by the hour/ listening to the drone: “The Patient. The Client./And don’t forget the Significant Others./ By all means, keep in mind the Nursing Process.”

“We’re training you to be/ Professionals./ We want you to think/ Independently./ Here, take this test/But don’t think too much/just fill in the dots/the computer will understand.”

We learn to forget,/ to not feel, to not know./ It will hurt too much,/ and it certainly won’t help /us to be professionals.

and…

Waiting 

Sitting on park benches/writing their hands/trying to forget the ill one inside/that hospital there/ the building you just stepped out of/ the one you walk by every day/ that structure that has become/ a part of the skyline/ seen from the window of a dorm room.

It is a lab/a place to practice/the proper way/to give drugs/ to make beds/to become a nurse.

But reflected in the eyes/of the park-bench individuals/ the building becomes/ one room/one bed/one person/one fear/one hope.

____   To all my mentors, named and unnamed (and in Bob’s case, half-named): thank you. Remember to pass it on.

 

 

 

Prostitution: The Oldest Oppression

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Gloria Steinem/Sponsored by Hedgebrook at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, 11-8-15. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Gloria Steinem reminds us that prostitution is not the oldest profession for women, but rather it is the oldest oppression of women. This is not just some catchy, smart play on words by a feminist icon. It contains powerful truths. It contains powerful truths that affect public health and policy. It contains powerful truths that affect all of us, even if we prefer to think that it doesn’t.

I’m writing this post the morning after TV actor Charlie Sheen publicly announced he is HIV positive, and linked his infection to his history of alcohol/drug use combined with his ‘use’ of prostitutes. (See NYT article “Charlie Sheen says he has HIV and has paid millions to keep it secret,” by Emily Steel, 11-17-15.) Considering the fact that ‘use’ of female prostitutes by heterosexual men is correlated with high scores for men on different masculine hostility measures, it strikes me as ironic that Sheen’s last–and now cancelled– TV series was titled Anger Management.

Hopefully, most people know that prostitution is not the twisted Cinderella Hollywood version Julia Roberts portrays in the movie Pretty Woman. But Pretty Woman was written and directed by two fairly macho men, and it was released in the dark ages of 1990. Surely the portrayal of prostitution is much improved today. But no. Even the women’s rights advocate, TV screenwriter and producer Shonda Rhimes, is woefully disappointing on this issue. I recently watched the first season of Scandal (which Rhimes wrote and produced) in which the main character–the professional ‘fixer’ played admirably by Kerry Washington–puts on her white hat/gladiator woman power suit and successfully defends a Washington, DC high-class escort/prostitution madame, allowing her to retire as a rich grandmother in Boca Raton, Florida.

In my thirty-plus years work as a nurse, I have worked with many young women involved in prostitution. I was always clear that it was sexual exploitation for underage girls, but within the progressive subculture of clinics/agencies I worked in, we called adult prostitution ‘sex work,’ and erred on the side of harm reduction: trying to help minimize the harms of prostitution to the patient and the public. In many ways–as I view it now–we were supporting their lifestyle, enabling it, and becoming part of the problem. I remain a strong advocate of harm reduction, especially as it pertains to drug/alcohol addiction, but not applied to prostitution.

I know prostitutes who call it a profession, who say they freely choose their work. I’d like to believe them because it would make my work easier. But so many prostitutes (female, male, transgender) have histories of previous sexual abuse as children. Their bodies are not their own; their bodies have been stolen from them. In such situations free choice is not possible. This, combined with the growing evidence that prostitution–even in countries where it is legal and regulated (including health screens/care)–is one of the most hazardous ‘jobs’ in the world, has led me to the conclusion that prostitution is the oldest form of oppression. Prostitution is part of violence against women.

So, what to do about it? In my hometown of Seattle, we have begun to adopt the ‘Nordic Model’ of intervention: decriminalizing (and diverting to supportive care, including housing, health care, counseling, job training) prostitution for the women/transgender people involved, and stepping up criminalization efforts directed towards the customers–or ‘Johns’–and the pimps/BackPages/brokers in whatever forms they take. And along with stepping up legal ramifications for the buyers and the brokers, Seattle has innovative programs, such as OPS: The Organization for Prostitution Survivors. OPS has a drop-in center for women, survivor support groups, art workshops for survivors, as well as community-based service provider trainings, and the new Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men (SSE).

Last week I visited OPS and talked with OPS co-founder (with survivor/activist Noel Gomez) Peter Qualliotine. Peter has taken the lead in designing and facilitating the SSE workshops. He explained that the SSE program was designed and piloted for two years and then began full operation in January 2015. He receives self-referrals as well as court referrals, and he’s hoping to be able to move it more heavily towards referrals. As he put it “8,000 men a day in King County are customers on BackPage,” so waiting for men to be ‘caught’ by either their wives/partners or the police and referred in to a ‘John’s School’ such as SSE, will not be very effective.

The SSE consists of a telephone intake conversation that Peter has with the men. He uses a motivational interviewing technique and asks the men, “How has this been a challenging time for you?” He said that with the rare exception of a man with psychopathic tendencies (my term here), the vast majority of men soliciting sex feel at least some qualms about it and also suffer negative consequences (sexually transmitted infections, guilt, relationship/legal/money issues).

The SSE program is based on the social-ecological model of violence prevention, and includes information and role-play on gender socialization and manhood training. It’s a support group model of three hour sessions over eight weeks, and is purposefully limited to ten men at a time. So far this year they have had sixty men complete the program, with some of the men so positively affected/changed by it that they have volunteered to help with further advocacy. (Stay tuned, because local and national news coverage on SSE is coming soon.)

Meanwhile, I know many people who work within public health realms in Seattle/King County who continue to advocate for legalizing prostitution, as if it is similar to ‘legalizing’ marijuana. And the otherwise admirable social justice/human rights organization, Amnesty International, is also advocating this stance–although they cleverly call it “protecting the human rights of sex workers.”

White People Have Culture

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“Mauri” or life principle, illustration by Nancy Nicholson in Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere’s book, te wheke: A celebration of infinite wisdom. Awareness Book Company, 1997.

The word ‘culture’ is misused and abused. We often use the word ‘culture’ as some strangely polite code word for race and ethnicity, for people who are somehow ‘not like us.’ And those of us white people, part of the dominant culture, typically don’t even believe that we have our own culture–like racism, we can’t see it because of our own power and privilege.

Within health care, we have trainings, courses, (and silly multiple-choice tests) on ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘cultural competence.’ As if being sensitive to or competent in this thing called ‘culture’ is possible, and if possible, as if it is a good thing. When what we should be doing is teaching to cultural humility and its Kiwi sister, cultural safety: building in self-reflection, life-long learning, and work to see/undo institutional racism.

I’ve written about different aspects of this issue in previous blog posts: “Cultural Competence, Meet Cultural Humility” (8-16-11), “Cultural Humility Redux” (2-2-14)  and “Cultural Safety: A Wee Way to Go” (3-12-14). Until recently, I much preferred the name/concept of ‘cultural humility’ over the name/concept of ‘cultural safety,’ mainly because I didn’t comprehend the need for the word ‘safety.’ My white privilege comfortable blindness there. But the escalating, deeply disturbing litany of racist violence in our country has forced me to see–duh!–the need for ‘safety.’ My recent return to New Zealand, the birthplace of the term ‘cultural safety,’ also opened my eyes to deeper layers of nuanced meaning of this term, of this work.

Jim Diers, MSW and I co-led an international service-learning study abroad program, “Empowering Healthy Communities,” on the North Island of New Zealand this past summer. We had a group of twenty-two engaged university students, across a range of health science and ‘other’ academic disciplines, and from a rich diversity of self-identified race/ethnicities. As many of them pointed out in their final written reflections, they learned as much from living with our group for five weeks as they did from interactions with New Zealanders. We spent a lot of our time working alongside and listening to community members on various Maori marae (villages), as well as Pacific Islander and other marginalized groups in New Zealand. We learned of their strengths, considerable community non-monetary assets, of their hopes for the future–as well as their challenges and historical traumas…the subtext being the need for cultural safety within health care, as well as within all other New Zealand institutions.

As part of a traditional Maori greeting, people introduce themselves–not by our typical name and credentials/work/university, but rather by details of where you are from: the names of the mountain and river of the land of your family/tribe. So for many members of our group, it was “My mountain is Rainer (or Tahoma as local tribes call it) and my river is the Duwamish (currently an industrial dump/Superfund site..).” And “My people are from Italy, England, Nepal, Mexico, the Philippines (and wait–why ‘the’ with Philippines?–important history lesson of oppression there), China, Israel….” Lovely diversity, except that none of us, unfortunately, could claim Native American/Indian ancestry. We were always asked about that by our Maori hosts–another important history lesson that wasn’t lost on our students. Through participating in this seemingly simple ritual of greeting, we all learned about our own cultures.

At the end of our study abroad program, we received an amazingly powerful talk on cultural safety from Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked to the students about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand–about the need for the ‘cloak’ of cultural safety. She told the story of well-intentioned Pakeha (white/European New Zealander) nurses asking their Maori or Pacific Islander patients, “What are your cultural practices,” and being met with polite, blank stares. “Because that’s our language, our terms, not theirs,” she added. She gently admonished our students to get to know themselves, their own cultures and biases, and to practice humility when working with people they perceive as ‘different’ from themselves–to listen, and “really listening takes time.”

Her closing quote, from Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere, whose book I reference in the photo caption in this post, was this:

“Your steps on my whariki (mat)/Your respect for my home/opens my doors and windows.”

Words to live and work by.