Nearly four decades ago a buddy of mine and I settled into a movie theatre near Asbury Park, New Jersey, to check out some newly released film entitled Star Wars. We had just completed a grueling, demanding first year of medical school, and I thought some mindless science fantasy flick would be just what the doctor ordered: no thinking or higher-level analysis anticipated, just some popcorn, special effects, and occasional stuff blowing up on the big screen.
I was immediately smitten with what would later become a global, multi-generational phenomenon from the opening minutes of the film.
Today, I am an executive at a large, private health foundation. I have had Star Wars figurines populating my office desk for some years now -- yes, seriously -- and the work we engage in at our foundation tracks well with the themes of social change lifted up by the phenomenon of Star Wars.
Our stated mission at the California Endowment is to "improve the health of underserved communities."
So we focus on community wellness and prevention approaches in communities either ignored or marginalized by the mainstream health system: young people of color, LGBT youth, immigrant communities, tribal communities, poor rural white communities, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, and refugee populations. We make investments in organizations primarily led by and for these population groups, strengthening their capacity to not only promote healthier changes within their communities, but through a broader lens of public policy and systemic change. In other words, we help these populations and communities fight on their own behalf for wellness.
What we have found in our work can be summed up as follows: social and political exclusion, marginalization, and stigmatization is bad for one's health. When society leaves you out, or counts you out, your health suffers as a result. We typically don't think of these social forces as relevant to health systems and healthier outcomes, but both the science and community experience are quite compelling on this point. If you have been suspended or expelled from school as a black or brown male, if you are an LGBT teen, if you belong to any one of our foster care or juvenile justice systems, or if you happen to reside in a zip code that is economically and resource-deprived - the data shows that your health is at risk: greater likelihood of chronic disease, exposure to trauma, risk of depression, and lower life expectancy. In public health lexicon, we call this phenomenon the social determinants of health.
The Star Wars genre is fundamentally about how those who populate the margins of society empower themselves to fight oppression and advance freedom, opportunity, equality, and social change. The essence of social change is euphemistically referred to as "The Force", some energizing, unifying, and positive dynamic which serves to inspire and catalyze action.
My Force awakens when I see how young people have banded together to fight for a more inclusive, equitable, just, and healthy society. We have funded young leaders to fight to institute healthier school discipline practices, accessible health care for undocumented families, prevention approaches in the criminal justice system, and health and counseling services for LGBTQ youth. While there is no singular, evil, Darth Vader figure to rally against, the common enemy in our work is the amalgam of societal and public policy indifference, exclusion, and marginalization.
The fact that the newest Star Wars film, directed by JJ Abrams, has casted an even more diverse and inclusive set of leaders for the film only serves to elevate the timelessness of the message of "The Force" as an agent for social change.
Our nation views health reform through the lens of health insurance, doctors, hospitals, and prescriptions. In our work, we recognize that most powerful vehicle for healthier change lies in the civic engagement, voice, activism, and advocacy led by young leaders of varying races, ethnicities, genders, and orientation. They are rising to fight racism and inequality in all of its forms, and we'll be a healthier, more just, and inclusive society as a result. Youth leaders are the "Lightsabers" for social justice.
May The Force be with them.
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