Dr. Joia Mukherjee is an impressive person.
She holds an MPH from Harvard, specializes in infectious diseases, and practices internal medicine and pediatrics. Considered one of the foremost experts on public health policy and implementation, she teaches the subject at Harvard. Dr. Mukherjee is Medical Director for Partners in Health (PIH), a NGO that provides clinical services, training and engages grassroots healthcare providers in advocacy work worldwide. Founded in 1987, PIH has grown to more than 11,000 doctors, nurses, aides, educators and, community organizers in Haiti and 11 other countries. Dr. Mukherjee joined the staff of PIH in 1998 and became Medical Director in 2000.
She is justifiably proud of her work without being prideful. Perhaps the only thing more impressive about Joia Mukherjee M.D. than her works, is her humbleness.
I was fortunate to be in attendance at Dr. Mukherje's inaugural address for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Her presentation, titled "Learning from Haiti: Relief and Long-Term Partnerships in the Developing World" described her thoughts and experiences during the first months of 2010 while working with the people of earthquake ravaged Haiti.
Compelling--at times heart wrenching, she laid out the chronology of events following the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. Within this moving narrative, Dr. Mukherjee wove themes of social justice, community and leadership into a personal philosophy securely tied with deep humility. "Leaders do not walk ahead of those they lead, they lead arm in arm with them." Dr. Mukherjee and her colleagues demonstrated this simple philosophy at work even as the magnitude of the disaster confronting them became clear.
Providing stark contrast to the unassuming methods of PIH were the attitudes projected by some of the better-known relief organizations. Many of these groups were reluctant, or refused outright to begin full operations before the imposition of "order". This stance and a presumptive "We are here to save you--step aside--we know best", amounted to an institutional arrogance, which severely compromised these groups credibility with the Haitian people and their capacity to alleviate the Haitian's suffering.
Spreading out from Port au Prince to the outlying villages, Dr. Mukherjee and her partners began setting up aid stations and simple operating areas. At each, they enlisted the most valuable assets imaginable, people--people who collectively possess vast local knowledge and deep cultural memory. Ironically, help comes from the very people who need help most. Engaging the local people and embracing their culture tears down myriad barriers. The displaced and dispossessed begin to sense community in the midst of devastation, and in the soil of community, hope will grow.
Community, as a concept, is a subject that warrants a closer look than the surface treatment I typically afford it. Perhaps sociologists or cultural anthropologists think about the subject in sophisticated terms as a matter of course, but I am neither of these. I speak about community often when I write and lecture on LGBT issues however so, a deeper understanding is crucial for me--and my audience.
I understand, for instance, that I become part of a community when I share some common interest or trait with a given group of people. This is but one basic facet to an immensely complex notion. Communities have structure and rules. If you define community as being where you live, most likely that village, or city, or neighborhood has some type of commonly accepted form of government, complete with codes, ordinances, association rules etc...
On any given day, I routinely toss around labels like "The transgender community," "The African-American community," or "The gay and lesbian communities." I may even bundle people together based on an even broader generalization, a good example might be "Religious people." There is clearly more to community than these overly homogenized labels. It is a good idea to remind myself -- "labels are only useful as a place to start."
To experience community fully, it is necessary for me to embrace its culture, contribute to it, evolve with it and share it.
Being part of a community carries with it responsibility, responsibility for the welfare of others and in perhaps the most fundamental of ways, an acknowledgement that common interest -- unity, outweighs one's self-interest.