I only realized that I was an optimist on November 9. Crushing disbelief is cliché, and yet — as I walked home, hot-cheeked, through rain and yolk-colored street lights just after midnight, past a dive bar where neighbors tallied states and feverishly refreshed fivethirtyeight — I felt trampled. Despite the signs and my own acute awareness of America’s tolerance of intolerance, I hadn’t had a plan. Many didn’t, and the presidential election’s aftermath has been smudged with pleading: for impeachment, then recounts, then to electoral college members and the White House. Many of us in health care wondered what a Trump administration would mean for our friends, family and patients.
In the days that followed, this sense of shock-shame-panic was written and shared ad infinitum by those with the luxury of time to hypothesize, while other organizations mobilized immediately. Just over a month later, I am at least grateful for those who turned words to action by recognizing that collective emotion can be a powerful impetus for social change. But of course, impetus is not enough, and a spark is only as meaningful as its kindling.
How do we keep this going?
To many in or on the periphery of the medical social justice sphere, it’s clear that gears are turning. I’ve been sent Google Documents with authors spanning a dozen institutions cobbling together action plans for how to respond to the rise in bias-motivated violence and links to Facebook groups so that providers nationwide can organize protests. Siva Sundaram, second-year medical student, is among a group of medical students trying to build a movement: working closely with the Protect Our Care Coalition, an alliance of key advocacy groups including Families USA, Doctors for America and Planned Parenthood. A co-author of the widely-circulated “From America’s Healers” letter, he sees this moment’s potential and its risk:
“There’s been a destabilization, and there’s opportunity to move in either direction. What we’ve seen is a mix of things: in our hospitals where there are a lot of like-minded people, people come together to tell patient stories, share their fears and their trouble with getting through the workday to turn that into action. Other hospitals, it seems like everyone buries their head in the sand and just tries to carry on with business as usual.
What I’ve realized is that it takes being around people who are talking and continue to talk and think about action to sustain any kind of energy. It takes a lot of effort to just get through medical school, and it’s all too easy to get upset or excited one week and then for things to normalize. We’re drawn in by all of the more mundane problems.”
It is this sustainability that Protect Our Care recognizes as lacking, and Sundaram suspects that investment in community relationships — physical community, not just those online — is key to making it reality. The team envisions a nationwide series of community forums January 16 to 27 and all medical schools are encouraged to hold them during this time and keep holding forums after the target dates. Protect Our Care is not hoping to create chapters or micromanage the forum organizing, the goal of each forum is to inspire its members to stay accountable in the long-term (those interested in coordinating these forums may learn about it here). That could mean holding a physical protest, or it might mean sitting together and calling legislators.
To be clear, coordinated large-scale action is critical. Protect Our Care is currently mobilizing students and providers nationwide to fight Affordable Care Act repeal through the #ProtectOurPatients effort, which includes action and deliverables in DC. Activism demands the humbling realization that as advocacy has become more accessible through social media, it has also become extraordinarily fragmented, and in the process, people have learned that they must motivate themselves alone. The Health Justice forums are not and do not pretend to be the solution in themselves — instead, they carve space for unlearning.