I believe that optimism is a moral choice. Lately the news has been overwhelmingly grim – hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and senseless gun violence. It is a reminder to us all that we are living in an increasingly volatile world. And while it is easy to be discouraged, in the midst of every tragedy and disaster there are, what Mr. Rogers called, "helpers." People who don't wait on others to take charge, they simply do it themselves. Take the recent disaster in Puerto Rico as an example.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States and its 3.5 million residents are US citizens. While the federal government has been slow to respond with help to the island - for reasons that I believe are based in institutionalized racism - individuals and non-governmental organizations are giving and volunteering in record numbers.
Recently I watched a Buzzfeed video that brought me to tears. Three hundred and nine members of organized labor unions representing the Teamsters and the AFL/CIO flew to Puerto Rico on a flight donated by United Airlines. These union members brought their skills as truck drivers, crane operators, plumbers, teachers, nurses and more to help those who need it most.
Unions are a type of social movement, fighting for the rights of workers. In the United States, unions began forming in the mid-19th century in response to the social and economic changes brought on by the industrial revolution. As with most social movements, social movements, the changes that unions have secured have been gradual and incremental, rather than rapid and abrupt. The United States is a country that is based on the possibility of change, however daunting or intimidating that change may be. I count myself as one of those who believe that change for the better is always possible.
A year ago Drs. Gloria Delany-Barmann, Pedro Bidegaray, and I wrote and won a US Department of Education Title VI Grant called "Communities as Agents of Change.” The goals of the grant are to diversify and strengthen international education at Western Illinois University and Spoon River College. Students from both institutions are able to apply for internships in public health, water conservation, micro-business, and education. Students can complete their internship in either Ecuador or Puerto Rico.
Dr. Delany-Barmann and I are returning to Puerto Rico in a couple of weeks with over $3000 worth of donations that members of our community have given to the people of Ponce, Puerto Rico – the city where we work. In the summer we will return with students for a month to continue the hard work of recovery after the hurricane.
Another aspect of the grant is to bring the stories of people and organizations whose work makes our world a better place to Macomb and the surrounding area. For anyone who believes in the promise of quote popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” - the film BENDING THE ARC is a must see. This is a new documentary about Partners In Health, an organization that is all about social change.
The film examines global health through the experiences of PIH leaders Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr. Jim Yong Kim who are both medical anthropologists and medical doctors. Paul Farmer and Jim Kim, two US-born Ivy Leaguers, went to Haiti in the early 1980s, where they met up with Ophelia Dahl. Together the three built a hospital stocked with equipment and drugs they begged, borrowed and stole from facilities in the US where they were training. Out of this sincere commitment to help some of the poorest people in the world survive treatable diseases such as tuberculosis and Aids, they founded a NGO called Partners in Health.
The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has since screened at film festivals around the country, including the Aspen Ideas Festival, Greenwich International Film Festival, Miami International Film Festival, Montclair Telluride Mountain Film Festival, and others.
With the help of the Peace Corps Fellows Program at WIU, we are honored to bring the film to our community. We hope that you will join us for this free screening at 5:00pm on October 17th, in Morgan Hall 109 on the Western Illinois University Campus.
As Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” This film is one outstanding example of positive change.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.