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Abdul El-Sayed | The Epidemic of Poverty: The Government Imperative || Radcliffe Institute

December 9, 2019


– Good afternoon, and
welcome to Radcliffe. My name is Janet Rich-Edwards,
and I am an epidemiologist, and also the Life Sciences
Adviser to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. And we are so pleased
to see you here. I’m excited. We had to move this
talk from a smaller room into this auditorium to
accommodate your interest. This talk is one of several
in a series on epidemics. I hope you were with
us back in October when we did a day-long event. But in addition
to today’s talk, I want to let you know that there
are cards in the back that include the dates of our final
two lectures in the series, including one on Obesity:
It’s More Complex Than You Think –on
March 27, and then, another one on the
Alzheimer’s Enigma: the Cause Of the Dementia
Epidemic, on April 23rd. Today, I have the pleasure
of introducing Abdul El-Sayed to you. He’s the former
health commissioner of the city of Detroit. He has a medical degree
from Columbia University, and was a Rhodes Scholar
at Oxford, where he earned his doctorate in Public Health. He is a native Michigander
who grew up in metro Detroit. As many of you know,
he’s running for Governor for the state of
Michigan, and launched his gubernatorial
campaign after witnessing the systematic failures in
Flint and across the state. He left his position as
an assistant professor in Columbia’s Department
of Epidemiology to return to Michigan. He became the youngest
health official in a major American city when
Mayor Mike Duggan appointed Abdul to rebuild
Detroit’s health department after
it was privatized during the city’s bankruptcy. As Health Commissioner, he
was responsible for the health and safety of over
670,000 Detroiters. He worked tirelessly to ensure
government accountability and transparency
to promote health and to reduce
cross-generational poverty. And today’s lecture
will deal with that– The Epidemic of Poverty:
The Government Imperative. Please join me in
welcoming Abdul El-Sayed. [APPLAUSE] – All right, good afternoon. So you’ve got to forgive me. As a politician now,
the town hall style just never leaves you, so– good afternoon. Thank you. Hey. It is an honor and a
privilege to be here today. To Dr. Rich-Edwards
and the conveners, I really appreciate
the opportunity to speak, and to
talk about an issue that I believe animates
much of our work for people who are oriented to solving the
challenge of human suffering. I started my career as a
physician and epidemiologist. I’m now running for governor. And to just sort of
orient you as to why– you know, I was never
supposed to run for office. In fact, the first time anybody
with any degree of knowledge of the political
process suggested that I should run
for governor, it was at my college commencement. I was the valedictorian
of my class at the University of
Michigan, and I was selected to give the student speech. Now, the speaker that anybody,
including my own parents actually came to listen to
was President Bill Clinton. And I got to give
my student speech, and President Clinton
gave his actual speech, and he was so kind as to
mention my speech in his speech. Now, it was the first time my
Egyptian immigrant father ever mentioned anything related
to pride and my name in the same sentence,
which was great. But after the speech, President
Clinton sort of sought me out. And he turned me
around and said, son, why are you
going to med school? That is not a
question that anybody asks a graduating senior who’s
going to medical school, right. And I just looked
at him for a minute. The first thing
that came to my mind was, well, President
Clinton, we’re brown. That’s what we do. [LAUGHTER] But I told him, look, I love
people, and I love science, and I think that this is the
way that I want to serve. And he said, you
know, son, you have a real gift for
communicating, and I hope that, someday, you might
consider running for office. And I couldn’t help
it, but the first thing that came to my
mind was, I don’t know if you saw my
first name, but there are 11 letters in that name,
and that’s just the first name. This is not in the cards
for someone like me. He said, well,
look, I understand. I get it. But I hope that,
someday, you’ll consider. And to explain why I’m
ultimately doing this thing has everything to do with the
life of a 3-year-old little boy whom I had the
privilege of serving when I was Health Commissioner
in the city of Detroit. His name was Demaryius
He was the fourth child of a 21-year-old mom. He met his father, probably,
about four times in his life, because his dad’s in jail. But before I tell you
how I met Demaryius, I want to share with you the
context within which I met him. I grew up in a
family that was built by Mohamed El-Sayed and Jackie
Johnson, now Jackie El-Sayed. And Mohamed El-Sayed
is the eldest of six born to a
vegetable salesman and the smartest,
wisest woman I’ve ever met in my life,
who is my grandmother, [? Sohad, ?] who never got
to spend a day in school. She was illiterate. They raised their six
kids, of the eight that she gave birth to,
in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the fish market
where my grandfather sold vegetables every day. And my dad knew
that, if he was going to walk a path that was
any different than the one that his father
had walked, that he was going to have to build
that path for himself with an education. And by all means, he did. He had the opportunity,
when he finally graduated from his
undergraduate program in engineering, to
pick one of two places that he was going
to immigrate to. It was either going to be
Bairoit, Germany, or Detroit, Michigan. My dad has an affinity for
the sound, roit, it seems. But the only two similarities
between Detroit and Bairoit is that they’re both places
where people make cars, and they both end
in the sound, roit. And so my dad was somebody
who did his homework. And when he did his
homework, he learned about a Detroit that was in
the United States of America. And he made the decision to
come to this country because of the ideals upon which
the country was founded. Now, my stepmother, who raised
me from the age of three, could not come from
different circumstances. She was born and
raised in a place called Gratiot County, Michigan. So you’re going to pardon
my Michigan-ness here, but Gratiot County’s just here. And her family has been
in this part of the world since before the
Revolutionary War. She can draw her lineage
to Abigail Adams, which is just funny, because
my younger brother’s name is Osama. So he’s, like, the only blue
blood Osama in the world. And so I got to grow up in
this incredible, multi-ethnic, multi-faith,
multi-context family. And my summers would have
me getting on an airplane, going off to
Alexandria, Egypt, where I’d hang out with my
grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. And then I’d come back, in
the middle of the summer, to a place called
Montcalm County, where my family has had a cottage on
a lake for the past 90 years. And I’d hang out with the other
side, and my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. And I came to
appreciate some things. When your grandmother
kisses you on the forehead, or tells you you should
eat a little bit more, or calls you an idiot,
it’s with the same love, regardless if it’s
your grandmother who raised six kids, never
got to go to school, in Alexandria, Egypt,
or your grandmother who raised three kids and is a nurse
in Gratiot County, Michigan. And I came to appreciate that
the things that make us human, that bind us in who
we are, tend to be far bigger than the things
that differentiate us, despite the fact that,
if you were to introduce my grandmother [? Sohad ?]
to my grandmother Judy, and share with them the fact
that they share a grandchild, that would have
blown their minds. And that’s the blessing
of having grown up in this country. Now, my father grew
up in a market. And so he has this real
affinity for outdoor markets. And there’s this
incredible market called the Eastern Market in Detroit. Anybody ever been there before? All right, so if you ever go to
Detroit, tell him I sent you. You got to go over there. There’s the guy who
sells mushrooms– the kind that you eat
–and they’re fantastic. And so we used to drive from
the suburb just north of Detroit into the city to
Detroit most Saturdays. And one of the things that
struck me during my childhood– I think when you’re the
most perceptive about the world –is that
the difference in life opportunities and expectations
that we would drive in that 30 minutes was the same
as it would take me eight hours to cross when
I’d go off to Alexandria. And that, to me, was the
framing for everything I was interested in
throughout my education. Why is it that you can travel 30
minutes and 10 years difference in life expectancy in these
United States of America? So I knew that I loved people. And my parents are
both engineers, so I knew I loved science. And I thought, I wanted to do
something about that chasm, that 30-minute/10-year
life expectancy chasm. And that ultimately
led to the opportunity to study biology and politics
at the University of Michigan. I went off to Oxford. I was a Rhodes scholar, and
did a PhD in public health, and then went to medical school. And, in my last year
of medical school, I came to appreciate that
the clinical world that I had thought I wanted
to inhabit was not going to be the
one that was going to equip me with
the set of tools to be able to solve
that difference. Studying biology
and politics, one of the more interesting things
that you come to appreciate is that, actually, these
systems are quite similar. If of biology is a set of
rules by which our cells make complex decisions about scarce
resources in our bodies, politics is just a set of rules
by which our communities make complex decisions about
scarce resources in society. And if you want to understand
why people get sick, we spend a lot of time
focused on the biology, the odd decisions that
cells sometimes make. But we don’t focus as much on
the decisions that communities sometimes make, and the ways
in which those decisions ultimately pattern access
to all the means of health and disease– a good job that pays
a living wage, that puts a good roof
over someone’s head, puts clean air in their lungs,
clean water in their cups, allows them to walk
in their communities without being victimized by
either a neighbor or the state itself. Those are the things
that ultimately pattern health and disease. That is what differentiates
the experience that I got to grow up
in from the experience that so many live in
the city of Detroit. And so I spent the first
couple of years of my career as an academic doing
research around trying to understand how we think
about policy relevant to health disparities, and realized
pretty quickly that most of the people around me were
a lot smarter than I was, and that my best skill set
was probably more navigating the bureaucracy, which a
lot of my academic friends found so difficult, but
that seemed so much more native to me, and realized
that it was probably my curtain call on an academic career. And I knew that I wanted
it to be about solving, hands-on, that chasm. And so I got that opportunity
when, by happenstance, a friend of mine started working
with the Mayor of Detroit. And I had called him up, we
were planning to do lunch, and on a whim, I
brought a couple of CVs. Two weeks later, I’m
having a conversation with the Mayor of Detroit
about public health in Detroit. And a month later,
I’m walking in to the Detroit
Health Department, as Health Commissioner, to
rebuild a Health Department that had been shut down. Now, let me tell you the story
of public health in Detroit. Detroit first had a health
department beginning in 1827. And, in 2012, the
city went bankrupt, and they made the
decision to shut down their 185-year-old
Health Department. This, in a city with a
higher infant mortality rate than my father’s
native Egypt, in a city where our children
face triple the probability of being hospitalized
for asthma, quadruple the probability
of being exposed to lead, than the state average. They shut down their
health department. I was hired in 2015 to rebuild
that Health Department. Now, I didn’t quite appreciate
what I was walking into. When we started, we
had five city employees and 85 contractors in the back
of the building in Detroit where people go to pay
their parking tickets. So, first day of work, I know
I look a little bit young. And, at that point,
I was 30 years old. So I grew my beard
out a little bit more. I put on my big boy
suit and my big boy tie. Walking in, first day,
you’re the commissioner. You’re going to commission. Nobody ever tells
you what that means. But you’re going
to do it anyway. And this guy walks up
to me from the right. Hey, you, you work here? I looked at him for
a minute, I was like, all right, the commissioner. Yes, I do work here. He’s like, great. Can you take my parking
ticket in for me. I was like, no, sir. I’m the– I’m the
Health Commissioner. He looks at me for a minute. He’s like, why are you walking
to the parking building? I look at him. I was like, you know what,
I’m actually asking myself the same question. So we got his ticket paid. Problem solved. First three weeks of work– you’ve got to imagine the
circumstance that I’m in. My job is ostensibly to provide
basic public health goods and services for 700,000 people
who have been systematically marginalized by every single
level of government intended to serve them. And I didn’t even
know where to begin. I knew everything I could
know about the theory of public health. I’d gone to different
graduate schools to learn what public health is. And I still didn’t have
an operational definition that would actually
help me to do my job. And that’s when I got
to meet Demaryius. So Demaryius, I met him when
I was touring our vaccination clinic. And this kid walks in with
about as much charisma as you can imagine, right. This 3-year-old little
kid, just got this saunter, this swagger about himself. I was like, this kid,
I need some of that. And he just had these
big brown eyes, and just, this personality
that lit up the room. And when his mom figured out
who I was, and introduced me to him– you know, I’ve been
introduced to a fair number of three-year-olds. And usually the way it goes is
that the parent will say, hey, meet this person. And the three-year-old will
look at you just enough to realize they don’t
know who you are, and then bury their face back into
their parents, right. Kid didn’t do that. Looks me right in the eye,
shakes my hand, gives me a hug, walks back to his mom. I was looking at this kid. I was like, this kid is
either the most rational or the most confident
three-year-old I’ve ever met in my life. And, in that moment, I
couldn’t help but contrast his confidence to the
set of circumstances in which he’s living. I already told you about the
public health statistics. But just, probabilistically,
if this kid graduates from his decrepit,
underfunded public school system in the city of
Detroit, his probability of winding up in jail
remains statistically higher than it does of
winding up in college. And I realized that,
for me, the definition of public health
that mattered most was, that which gave this child
a justification for the kind of confidence that he and
any other child of his age should have in the life that
he or she is going to live. That is the work of
government, fundamentally, is that we have to
be about justifying that kind of confidence,
that kind of swagger, that kind of believe in yourself
and the world in which you live that you, in fact,
if you do your work, will have access to the kinds of
opportunities that you deserve. And that’s what led us to
thinking about our Health Department, and setting
ourselves a vision and a thesis for how it was
that we were going to rebuild this department. We rebuilt Detroit’s
Health Department around the goal of
leveraging health to disrupt
intergenerational poverty. Because, if you think about
what the epidemic of poverty is, that boy is patient zero. And if we’re not optimizing
around his experience, and the experiences
of the people that make his life
what it is, then we’re missing the point entirely. So often, in government, it’s
easy to think in abstract, to talk about tackling
one problem or the other without actually
optimizing around the lived experience
of the people who we are intended to serve. And so, for us, we identified
a set of critical outcomes that we saw as being a part
of the cycle of poverty. Teen pregnancy. 16% of all births in
the city of Detroit are unintended to a teen mother. And if a young woman gets
pregnant without intending to before graduating
high school, her probability of dropping
out is about 50%, one in two. Infant mortality. Our infant mortality rate
in the City of Detroit is higher than my
father’s native Egypt. It is the highest of any
big city in the country. And we set our goal to
address infant mortality, because, if a child
is in a position where the probability
of death is high, that kid already starts their
life behind everyone else. Lead poisoning. We all know the
biophysics of lead, and what it does to a
young, developing mind. And so it doesn’t matter what
you do around the investment if you’ve already poisoned
that mind and its ability to move, and leverage,
and make sense of information and knowledge. Vision deficits. If you can’t see what’s
happening on the school board, it doesn’t matter what’s
happening on the school board. Asthma. A child with
persistent asthma is likely to miss a day of
school every two weeks– any sort of persistent asthma. And if you’re talking about
moderate-to-severe persistent asthma, you’re talking
about a day every week. Imagine trying to learn when
you’re missing a day every week because you can’t breathe. And instead of spending
a day in the classroom, you’re spending a day
in the emergency room. Misnutrition. We find this brutal paradox
among low-income children, disproportionately
children of color, in communities
like Detroit, where they have too much of
the macronutrients that build the guts, and too
few of the micronutrients that build the brain. And so it’s not even that
it’s just malnutrition, it’s about the wrong nutrition. It’s misnutrition. And then, finally,
elderly isolation. And one would say, well, if
you’re focused on children, why elderly isolation? Well, the single best thing
you can do for a young person is give them access
to an older person who cares about their life. And too many of our seniors
in places like Detroit fundamentally can’t get
around, because of the way that we’ve built our city. And I want to share
with you just four of the projects that we
kicked off to try and disrupt this cycle of
intergenerational poverty, break down the barriers
that kids like Demaryius had to being able to learn and
earn in Detroit, like we would want for any child, anywhere. Around infant
mortality, we built a program called Sister
Friends with the idea that so many women who are
caring for the first time don’t have high-quality
mentorship, and are not connected to
the resources that do exist. And a lot of that has to do
with the brutal geography of the city of Detroit. So much of the attention is paid
to eight square miles of 138. And so many of the people
live in those other 130. And so folks don’t have access
to those kinds of resources, both as a function of
knowledge, and also, as a function of geography. And so, if you’re able to
equip a young woman who’s carrying for the
first time with access to a mentor who’s not
going to judge her, and is able to empower
her just by being there, and also because that
person can connect her to the resources that
exist in the city, then you have a chance
of being able to reduce the probability
of pre-term birth, and ultimately,
infant mortality. Around teen pregnancy,
we know that so much of the unwanted pregnancy
burden in Detroit is a function of lack
of access to very basic pre-conception
family planning services. We have one Planned Parenthood
clinic serving 700,000 people in the city of Detroit. And it’s right in midtown. Are you guys familiar
with Shinola watches? It’s walking distance
from Shinola. And so think about where
the burden of need is, and we’re not
serving that burden. So what we wanted to
do was provide access to pre-conception
family planning services in the neighborhoods in which
young women live, learn, pray, and play. And so we wanted to
put them in contexts that were discreet, that we’re
not going to be stigmatized. So, for example, if you were
able to put such a clinic in a rec center, it’s possible
that a woman could just as easily be walking in to have a
conversation about controlling her fertility as she could
to be playing basketball. And so we wanted to provide
these services in the places that people actually are. When it came to asthma,
so much of the burden of asthma in Detroit is driven
by the poor quality of air that we have in a
highly-industrial city. Corporations that
pollute have had their way, with both
state and city government, for the past several decades. We built an environmental
justice practice to stand up against
these polluters when– Marathon Petroleum, that has a
refinery in southwest Detroit, the most polluted
zip code in Detroit and in the state
of Michigan –we were able to organize
with the local community. The Michigan Department
of Environmental Quality, who is supposed to
regulate on these issues, was set to OK the deal. And we organized,
and we stood up. And together, the
voice of the community was able to force Marathon
Petroleum to reduce their emissions, when they
had wanted to increase them, investing $10 billion
to clean up their act. We did the same
thing when it came to uncovered piles of petroleum
coke on the Detroit riverfront. We were able to
force that operator to cover their piles
up if they wanted to store these piles that
release fugitive dust, and ultimately get into
the lungs of our children. When it came to the issue
of water and lead poisoning, we had built a program
called the Lead Safe Detroit. Now, let tell you what
Lead Safe Detroit was. We were in a situation
where so many of our kids that had been tested
positive for lead poisoning would fall through the cracks. We weren’t able to move all
of the goods and services that we could offer
these kids to these kids, because there was no system of
actually managing the cases. And so we would convene
a meeting, every month, where we would sit with all of
the agencies that touch lead, together, and case manage every
single case of lead poisoning, to make sure that every child
had access to everything that they needed. But there were
circumstances that reminded us that we
weren’t doing enough to prevent in the first place. And so I had just finished
inspecting city schools when I heard about the
Flint water crisis. Our teachers in Detroit– some of the most
courageous public servants you can talk about, who are
doing the impossible every day in communities where
they are under-resourced and without the means of being
able to just basically do their job –they had
conducted a sick-out, because their buildings
were not meeting code. And so, as a city, we
inspected every single school in the school district. I personally inspected
a couple of them. I want you to imagine,
with me, this. Imagine you’re walking into
a first grade classroom. It’s 11:00 AM. It’s about February 1st. And the first thing that
you see is a first grader wearing their coats. It’s 11:00 AM. And the minute you
walk into the room, you feel the chill, kind of
like when you walk outside. And you realize
that those kids go to school in that circumstance
almost every single day, because the boilers in
their buildings don’t work. And then you start
looking around the room, and you see, in the
corner, a dead mouse. Now, not just any dead mouse. The mouse didn’t just die. The mouse is literally
in a state of decay, suggesting it’s
been there for days. And then you walk out
of that classroom, and you’re walking
by the gym, and you smell the smell of mold. And you look inside, and
you see the gym floor buckling because of
the amount of mold growing underneath that floor. These are the
circumstances in which kids go to school in Detroit. And we realized that,
given those circumstances, it was possible
that our kids could be exposed to the same lead we
were hearing about in Flint, in the single place
where we systematically concentrate most of our
kids, most of the day, most of the year. And so we put
together a protocol to have every single school,
day care, and Head Start tested for lead in the water, tested
all 360 buildings in six months, and created a
protocol that is now model practice nationwide. Now you think about the
circumstances of a life. And I shared with you
some of the work that we did at the Health Department. And if our goal is to tackle
this epidemic of poverty, then focusing on
health is certainly one approach to doing that. But you and I well know
that the responsibility of addressing poverty goes
well beyond the kinds of things that you can do in
the Health Department. And I came to appreciate that. And frankly, the
hard roof of being able to work as a public servant
in appointed office, when I took on my Mayor on
issues that he didn’t want to pay attention to. The city of Detroit
shuts down 18,000 homes from having water
every single year. Now, it shouldn’t. I don’t know how many of
you are public health people or doctors, but you
all would probably agree with me that
something that comprises 70% of your body, the
lack thereof is probably a public health issue, right. It seems like it
should make sense. And the city didn’t want
to move on it, because it didn’t make financial sense. And so we’re raising the
cost of water on people without being able
to actually empower them to pay their bills. And they face shutoffs. I came to appreciate
how serious that was when I was personally
visiting a house where a woman had lost a baby. And I asked her if I
could use her restroom, and I went to use the restroom,
only to appreciate that there was no water in the restroom. Instead, there were
a couple of bottles lined up next to the sink. And I saw the baby
bath, and the bottles lined up to the baby bath. And I asked her, you
don’t have water, do you? She said, no. I said, how long
haven’t you had water? She said, a couple of months. Imagine trying to bathe your
child with bottled water because you don’t have
water in your house, because you’re paying
hundreds of dollars a month simply to pay for
something that, frankly, should be a human right. These are the circumstances
in a place like Detroit. And if you don’t pay
attention to that, there’s no way you’re going
to interrupt real poverty. And then you have
challenges relating to housing in the city. Our biggest monument program
in the city of Detroit was a demolitions
program, the idea being that if you demolish
homes that are no longer being used, that that will raise the
value of all the other homes. And, in theory, it works. Here’s the problem, though. If you’re demolishing housing
that was built before 1978, the probability that there
is lead in the walls is 100%. And if you don’t
take precautions around how you do this, around
following the kind of protocol that will protect
from fugitive dust, there’s a high
probability that you’re going to release a cloud
of lead dust into the air. We did an analysis
on this very issue. We found that the
probability that a child who lived within 400 feet
of a demolition– of that child testing positive
–was about 30% higher. And if they lived
within 200 feet, it was 60% higher, the
dose-response relationship. It’s about as good as you
get in epidemiologic studies. And, you know, what was
the Mayor’s response? Well, I need a third opinion. Well, you know, before
I did this job for you, I literally did this
kind of research. That was my job. And this kind of assessment,
this kind of study, it’s about as
ironclad as you get. And no attention paid, because
it wasn’t politically feasible. And so, in that moment, I
came to very much appreciate that the responsibility of
tackling the kind of poverty that we wanted to address,
the epidemic of poverty, required us to be
able to set the agenda around the circumstances in
which that little boy lives. I want you to think about his
user experience for a second. I want you to think
about his life. Put yourself in his shoes, and
he’s walking through his life. He lives in a home
that was built before 1978 that
his mother rents from a predatory landlord. He pays the same kinds
of rates that people like me paid in
downtown Detroit, simply because they
prey off the fact that a lot of those other
folks, because of credit score, can’t compete for
that kind of housing. In Detroit, if
you own your home, there’s a 36%
probability that you are going to lose that home,
not to mortgage foreclosure, but to tax foreclosure. Why? Because we’re assessing
homes and about 50% plus the rate of the
value of the home. Imagine having to pay 50%
of the value of your home every year in taxes. 36% default, and they’re
kicked out of their homes. And then you think
about the circumstances of his mother’s work. She works two jobs
just to be able to pay a basic income to be
able to put good food on the table for her kids. Two jobs. Why? Because you can’t actually
afford the cost of that rental and the cost of that food
on minimum wage working 40 hours a week. You think about his
grandmother, who provides most of the childcare. Well, she has
Medicaid and Medicare, but the problem is that the
way that we incentivize doctors means that there aren’t doctors
in the community in which she lives. And there’s questionably
reliable public transportation. You have to wait about
an hour to take a bus. And then for her to get
to the nearest clinic that would see her for
her heart failure, she’d have to take two buses. That means one transfer. That means the
whole trip is going to take her 2 and
1/2 hours, and she’s got four kids to care for. So instead, she winds up
in and out of the hospital, because she exacerbates
every month. You think about
that boy’s father. Man’s in jail– third time. Never even accused
of a violent crime. We incarcerate 11% more people
in the state of Michigan than the national average. We have a system of
policing that seems to want to police
on top of people rather than police with people. We are way better at violating
people’s bodies for petty crime than we are in policing the
violations of their bodies for serious crime. The probability of closing
a murder in Detroit is extremely low,
and yet the cops will pick on you
just because you look a particular kind of way. And then you think about
the air that boy breathes, and it’s polluted by
folks like Marathon. You think about the water he may
or may not have in his house. You think about
the school district he’s going to go to that’s
been under receivership from the state for
the past seven years, that has proceeded,
despite only having to do the work of
reducing that debt, has doubled the debt over
the past seven years. And meanwhile, you
have a corporate system of charter schools that
have eaten up the children from public schools. And so those public
schools are hemorrhaging to these for-profit corporations
that take our tax dollars and put them in
their back pocket. Thank you, Betsy DeVos. You think about the
fact that we don’t have reliable mass
transportation in Detroit anywhere. And if you have a
car, the probability is, in Detroit, because we have
a legal system of redlining, that you’re going to pay upwards
of $500 to $1,000 a month just for your car insurance. So 50% of Detroiters do what’s
called driving dirty, meaning that they don’t have insurance. So that forces you to
do something illegal, simply because if you’re black,
or you live in a particular zip code, or you haven’t
completed high school, or your credit score
is below 600, well, you’re going to pay a lot
more for your car insurance. The tragic irony of the
Motor City is that about 25% of Detroiters don’t have
a car in a city that was built around the car. And so, to be able to address
the circumstances of that boy’s life, if we are honest about
trying to actually address this epidemic of poverty, it
forces us to pay attention to those issues. Our campaign just put out
a 45-page urban agenda. And in that agenda,
we’re talking about how it is that we
solve that foreclosure epidemic in the
city of Detroit, how it is that we create something
as simple as a Renter’s Bill of Rights. We’re talking about
the fact that water– the basic amount
that a family of four needs, to be able to drink, to
clean, to cook, and to bathe –should be a right. It should be free. We’re talking about how it is
that we actually incentivize real mass transit, and we bar
the predatory auto insurance industry from being able
to charge differentially based on where you live, or
based on what your education level is. We’re talking about what
it means to actually build a Michigan Department of
Environmental Quality that’s focused on environmental
justice as an end, rather than being run by
a former oil executive, as it is today. We’re talking about real
criminal justice reform– policing with communities,
rather than upon communities, making sure that the
leadership of our police is not somebody who calls people
who are peacefully protesting– young black men, just
for taking a knee –calling them degenerates
and ungrateful, people who represent
the communities that they are meant
to police, and have experience in those
communities, where we’re not throwing the book
at people simply for possessing a
drug that ought to be legal in the first place,
where, if you go to jail, that jail is going to be a
place where you’re going to get access to the education that we
failed to give you when you are in our public school system,
and that once you get out, people aren’t going to ask about
your experience of having been in jail. We’re talking about being able
to build the kind of Michigan where we are empowering
people like that little boy to be the means of growth
in the first place. That has to be the
way that we tackle this epidemic of poverty. Systems matter. Oftentimes, you
know, politicians like me will stand up and just
give you a bunch of issues. Systems matter. They reinforce themselves. And they are directed in
particular directions. And if we’re not willing
to direct our system of how we govern in a
place like Michigan around empowering that little
boy to be the means of what the future looks like,
then we’re failing him, and we’re failing ourselves. And that is the
focus of how we ought to be able to move policy
that actually does address this epidemic of poverty. Now, I want to end
on a couple of notes. Recently, Amazon– you
know, the big corporation that we all click
and save –Amazon announced that they wanted to
have a second headquarters, and there was this big
sweepstakes about where they were going to go. And the City of
Detroit and also, actually, the City of Grand
Rapids both put in proposals. And neither Detroit nor Grand
Rapids made their top-20 list. And everybody in
Michigan was really upset about this whole thing. Here’s the problem. I think we’re asking
the wrong question. The question should
not be why does Amazon choose not to come to Detroit? The question has to be
how do we empower people like that little
boy, Demaryius, to be the people who start the
Amazons of the future in Detroit in the first place. Because unless we’re
willing to invest in people, and the places
in which they live, learn, work, and
play, then we’re missing the point
about what it means to grow the kind of just,
equitable, sustainable future that we want for a
state like Michigan. I also say this. Politics is very personal. And anybody who
tells you otherwise either has the privilege
of never having to have been locked out,
or doesn’t have the empathy to appreciate what
that might feel like. Politics is deeply personal. And for me, I just
recently had a reminder of just how personal it is. My partner Sarah,
about 10 weeks ago, gave birth to our
first baby girl. And this little
girl is going to be this ethnically half-Egyptian,
ethnically half-Indian, 100% American, Muslim,
soon to be woman– sooner than I’d like to admit. And I think about the world
that she’s growing up in. Every night, I get to come home,
and I get to put her to sleep. And in that moment, I
get to look in her eyes. And I feel things. And the things
that I want to feel are the assuredness that
the world in which I’m raising her is a world that
is going to support her like I hope to support
her, empower her like I hope to empower
her, to love her like I hope to love her. And I don’t feel that. And so many people don’t
feel that right now. But I can’t help but contrast
my little girl Emmalee to Demaryius, and my experience
putting my little girl to sleep every night, to
what Demaryius’s mom must feel when she walks in
and sees him sleeping. And the work that we
have to do comes down to whether or not we are willing
to live our aspirations. Now, I told you about
my dad at the outset. My dad is somebody
who does his homework, and he learned about a society
built on a set of ideals. And I had those ideals very
vividly illustrated in my mind by my public school
civics teacher. This woman named Miss Rayburn. She had this rare
gift among educators. She was the kind of person
who could go into your mind and put together
a set of concepts. It was as if you
were just there. And I remember
feeling like I was with the framers
of the Constitution when they made a decision to
make our society about ideals instead of identities. And among those
ideals is the one that I know my dad took a
bet on back in 1978 when he chose to come here. We hold these truths
to be self-evident that all people
are created equal. And in that world,
should we choose to reach out and
grasp that aspiration, that world is the world
where my daughter has no obstacles, but even
more important than that, that boy, Demaryius, has
no obstacles, either. And we have to ask
ourselves how far we are away from that
world, and whether or not we’re willing to do
the work of getting there. Now, the work of getting
there will require us, yes, to have smart policy solutions. Fine. But more importantly,
it will require us to stand up to
the institutions that have created the world as it
stands in the first place. The thing about politics
is that it doesn’t really exist without conflict. So many people want a politics
where you’re not actually standing up against anything. Everybody kind of agrees. Well, in rooms like
this, we all kind of can agree, because,
by definition, we’re the people who’ve won. And the question becomes,
are we willing to stand up on a set of things, and
against a set of others. Are we willing to
have conversations that say, no, you can’t
actually close the door on certain kinds of people. You cannot erect the kind of
institutions that hold people down. You cannot continue to eat at
a particular corporate trough if you want to actually
serve the public. Are we willing to call that out? Are we willing to have the
courage of a set of convictions about the aspirations that
are supposed to animate our society in the first place? That’s not to say that we
can’t aspire to a world where we all get
there, but that getting there means that the folks who
say that certain people don’t belong, and certain people
can’t be a part of the solution, and certain people
can’t be a part of the world we want to
build, well, those folks, they have to be sidelined. And it means being willing
to do the work of saying, those ideas are broken. They don’t work anymore. And I’ll tell you, I’ve always
believed that light drives out darkness. It’s the only thing that can. And the thing about
light is, usually, it’s the willingness to just be in
a moment where it’s hard to be. And one of the things I’ve come
to appreciate is that so many of the people who have been told
that the circumstances in which they live are a function
of others, right, so many of those folks,
when you sit down and you’re willing to
actually be with them, and you’re willing to hold
a conversation with them, you’re willing to dignify
them for real people, you’re willing to appreciate
the pain that they have, and you’re willing to articulate
a future that says that, actually, when we come together
as people who have been locked out in different ways
for different reasons, when we come together around
a politics that brings us together, that in fact, the world can be the kind of
place where all of us succeed, all of our children
have the kind of future we would dream of for them. And that’s going to mean
being willing to take on institutions,
and to ask ourselves what role we play in
perpetuating institutions, and what role we can play
standing against institutions when they’re wrong. The thing about institutions is
that they’re usually populated with good people, right. Almost everybody in institutions
is a good guy, a good person. They don’t mean wrong. The problem is that
the institution enforces a certain way forward. And so, for us, it’s about
coming together and standing up within the institutions
that we live in, and deciding that we won’t just
be validated by whether or not those institutions tell
us that we’re good, and give us gold
stars, but that we’re willing to stand up on a
set of ideals and values that we believe in to drive the
institutions in the directions that they need to go. And I know one thing
about this country is that the people here, we have
a unique capacity to correct. See, the thing about the
idea of a more perfect union is it implies two
mutually exclusive ideals at the same time, which is
itself fundamentally human– A, that you’re not perfect to
begin with, because otherwise you couldn’t be more perfect,
but B, that you aspire to perfection even still. And so, in a moment like
this, where the politics look so broken and we
are so frustrated, I believe that if we’re willing
to aspire to that thing, we’re willing to
have conversations with the people who
animate institutions, we’re willing to ask ourselves
what our ideals really are and what they imply
for who we ought to be, we’re willing to stand
firm on those ideals, we’re willing to grab hands
with unlikely partners, and we’re willing
to walk forward, that that world of ours,
that more perfect union, that we can get there. And I look forward
to partnership as we walk that path together. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] – I wish I lived in Michigan. So we have, I think, about
15 minutes for questions. So I’d encourage you
to come up to the mic, tell us who you are,
and state your question. And thank you very much. – My name is Ned Bacon. Thank you so much for, really,
an inspirational speech. And I commend you
for your ability to tell stories that make
all of this very real. I’ve worked in institutions,
I’ve worked in businesses, and I’m sure you’ve encountered
the same problem, which is that, whether it’s Harvard or
whether it’s a big corporation, the need for
resources always seems to exceed the resources
that are available. And I like the
discussion of ideals. How do you get the
resources in place– because these problems
you’ve described are so big and so broad, and
there’s a need– so how do you address that problem? – Yeah. Thank you for the question. You know, one of
the first things I was ever told
about a budget is that it is a manifestation
of your ideals and your values, right. Because your ideals mean nothing
in infinite resource space. You can do anything, right. But the question becomes,
when your resources are finite, what do you spend
those resources on, and why? And I do agree that we have
deep resource constraints, but we also have deep
resource constraints within the context of the
ideals that we’ve already sort of seemed to bake in to
what we spend our money on. So we live in a
country right now where we spend 46% of the
world’s military expenditure– the world’s expenditure. And I get it. It is hard knock
world out there. And yes, you have
to defend yourself. But 46% of the world’s
military expenditure. And when people talk about
things like universal health care, they say, well, it’s
going to be so expensive. So yeah, it is going to
be kind of expensive, but the question
becomes, is it what we’re willing to spend
our money on vis-a-vis all of the other things we
already spend our money on. And I think the
responsibility, obviously, is to be working
toward situations where your solutions are non-zero
sum, where you can actually generate more out of
what you choose to do. But I will also
say that it’s going to mean making hard
decisions about the things that we already
spend on, and why. And this is what I meant when I
said that it means standing up against certain things. And I wish we could have
everything, and have our cake and eat it, too, but that’s
not the world that we live in. And the world we
live in is one where we have to toggle against
different viewpoints and different perspectives
on what is a value. And we have to ask ourselves
whether or not what we spend is consistent with what
our values purportedly are. And then, we have to be willing
to do the work of elevating the people who speak on behalf
of alternative viewpoints, right. I mean, I’m here
talking to you today. I really wish you could
just meet Demaryius. I wish he could be here
talking for himself, because, if he was, the
question of whether or not he’s worth it– the investments are worth it –I
think that would be answered. And I think that’s what we
have to be about doing, right. Places like this
in particular are uniquely good at shaping
the kind of conversation that we have, about
dictating what is of value and what is important. And when we marginalize
people like Demaryius, and the people who
live in communities like his all over the country– I mean, this could just
as easily be Roxbury, right –it’s a lot easier to
continue to make the decisions as we continue to make them. And I want us to
have a conversation where we are shedding
light on what the alternative uses
of our money look like, and what the fallacies of the
current uses of our money look like. – Amelia [? Kohn. ?] You laid
out an inspiring program– a inspiring electoral
proposal, basically. So my question is– I have two concerns. And one is that your
program is somewhat narrowly urban-oriented, and also it
has a narrow class basis. So what is the
demographic situation, because you’re running for
governor of Michigan, right. So I wonder how you– I assume you’ve
thought that through, but you haven’t addressed it. And the other is,
how are you going to realize this ambitious,
very humane program given the federal context in
which you’ll be working? – Yeah. Thank you for your question. I really appreciate it. So I focused, today, on what
was ultimately our urban agenda. We will be rolling out a rural
agenda in the next three weeks. And the reason I chose to
focus on the urban agenda today is because it comes out
of my work in Detroit, and is educated by
that experience. I’ll tell you this, though. I took a bet on the fact
that the kinds of challenges that people in urban communities
and people in rural communities face tend to actually be
more similar than we’re allowed to see. And that inability to
look beyond the curtain has been driven, in large part,
by the goals and the agendas of politicians who benefit
tremendously from dividing these two groups of people. I also say that, when
you talk to folks who don’t suffer
that kind of poverty, one of the big challenges
that many of us face is, why has the world
become so insecure. And there’s a lot of
conversation about neo-populism in this moment. And a lot of that is driven by
the manifestations of stories told to people about
why they no longer have what they used to have. And then the question
becomes, well, what do we do to make sure
that people don’t lack access to those things in the future. It’s easy, I think, in this
moment of time where we get hyper-segregated– by race certainly, but also
by socioeconomic position –to assume that the
lives that others lead have no implication for our own. And I think that’s a very
dangerous assumption. It’s a dangerous assumption
because it hurts people. But it’s also a dangerous
assumption because it just fundamentally not true. We all live in the same world. And, you know, when I speak
on the coasts, sometimes, about the situation in
the middle of the country, I often get very well-meaning
questions about, well, why did people go for Trump? I’ll tell you, my own uncle
voted for Donald Trump. He is a guy who drove
truck his whole life. And I mean, he
was somebody who– I’ll tell you, he was
the most fun uncle. He was the guy who took us
snowmobiling in the winters, took us water skiing
in the summers, introduced me to mustard
pretzel, which, if you’ve never had one, is delicious,
and, you know, went as far as to learn how
to prepare venison halal so that my family could eat it. He’s not motivated by any
anti-Muslim animus at all. But he lost his business in
2008 when the economy went bust. He was told by the
Democratic establishment that the economy is back. Well, it’s back if you’re
a trader on Wall Street. It’s not back if you’re
my uncle in the middle of the state of Michigan. And so, for him,
he felt like he was between somebody who
was kind of crazy, but was speaking right
to him, and somebody who seemed not to care about
people like him at all. And he made what was,
within the boundedness of his information, a
pretty rational decision. You’ve got to imagine I
was quite surprised, right. And I confronted him about it. You know, I’ll never
forget what he said. You vote in your best
interest, and I vote in mine. And it’s time for us
to be able to have a conversation,
across these bounds, about what drives people’s
decision-making, and about the facts and realities
of those lives. Because if we don’t
pay attention to them, we risk not only tearing
apart our social fabric, but allowing people to live
in unnecessary suffering– the kind of suffering
that we could solve if we’re willing to get it
right about where we allocate our funding. – Hi, my name is Nikhil Patel. I’m actually a student here
at the Business School, and, coincidentally,
I’m also actually going to go work in Detroit this
summer, in the Mayor’s office. So it’s exciting and
encouraging to hear this. My question to you is regarding
your comment about Amazon. So you mentioned how there
is a state of the world where you invest in making it
so that, in Detroit, there could be the next Amazon. If you were governor,
how would you balance that versus the
very real possibility that cities like Boston, or
San Francisco, or even Austin already have business
momentum, and if we take too long to build that
business momentum in Detroit– or even in the state of
Michigan –then you’re going to lose that
battle over and over. So, how would you
prioritize getting companies to come first, and
then investing, or the other way around. – It’s a great question I’ll
tell you this, right, all three of those cities that you
named, they have a really strong startup culture, right. And, if you’re a startup,
you want two things: you want talent and capital. Agreed? Here’s the problem. In Michigan, we have played
by an economic script that says that we actually
have no capacity to generate our own businesses–
organic, growing businesses. And so the best
thing that we can do is provide ridiculous tax
subsidies to huge corporations to come and bring
jobs that we know are going to get offshored or
automated within the next five years anyway, and then when
those jobs that we promised go away and they’re
still getting subsidized, well, we’ve got to go
back to the drawing board. So what do we do? We do the same thing again. And then you’re left
in a circumstance where you no longer have the revenue
to be able to invest in people and infrastructure, and you
have a couple of corporations that run highly-automated
factories in random parts of your state. What’s lost is the ability
to actually attract talent and capital. So, to me, I would
much rather start investing in our talent and
our infrastructure, which, if you talk to any business
leader in the world, they will tell you,
the things that I want are highly-talented skill
set and skilled workforce, and really great
infrastructure that’s not going to let me down. You do those things, I’m
a lot more interested in coming to where you are. And right now, we’re so
beholden to our dependency on these huge
corporations, and we’re so at a loss for the
ability to actually invest in people
and infrastructure, that we’re stuck doing the
same thing over and over again. Do you see what I mean? And so, you know, part
of the question is, like, well, if you’re losing the
game, do you just give up, or do you just start
playing the game better? Well, you start playing
the game better, right. And so, in Michigan, we have to
start playing the game better. That means, to me,
a couple of things. Number one, it means really
believing in our ability to build a small business,
startup-oriented kind of economy. People want to come
to Detroit if we’re able to incentivize
them to come. That means, when
they come, they know they’re going to have
an awesome workforce, and they’ve got
great infrastructure. And infrastructure also
means the kinds of things that you– as a
young person who’s making a decision
about where you want to build your life –the kind of
lifestyle that you want, right. Unfortunately, in
Michigan, almost all of the housing we have is
single-family units, right, in random neighborhoods, that
young people don’t really want to live in anymore. And so unless
we’re able to build around trying to attract the
people who are going to build the economy of the future,
and more importantly, invest in our people
in Michigan, right– that little boy. So he’s the kind of person
who goes to college, stays in Michigan, builds a
great startup that becomes a billion dollar corporation. I’d love to see that. See what I mean? And so it’s about making
those investments, strategically, now,
and recognizing that the short-term
incentive sets that most politicians and most
corporations are beholden to are only going to allow us to
swirl further and further down the toilet bowl, right. And, at some point,
you gotta rethink it. I was sitting with the Crane’s
Detroit Business Editorial Board– they’re like the business
magazine for Detroit companies –and articulated
this vision to them. And they’re like, well,
that’s a 50-year vision. I was like, yeah. He’s like, well,
you’re not going to be able to accomplish
it in eight years. I was like, yeah, I agree. But the question– the
question to me has to be, how do I make the Michigan
where my daughter chooses to raise her kids, and her kids
choose to raise their kids, not how do I make myself
look good for four years, so everybody pats
me on the back, and then we’re all right
down where we were. We need leadership that’s
thinking on a 50-year to 100-year time horizon. That’s what all
leadership should be. [CLAPPING] – Thank you very much. This has been a refreshing talk. I guess my question,
as I think about this, is as I think it was
Frederick Douglass said, power never cedes anything
without a struggle. Never has; never will. And it looks like the
corporations and the people who want tax cuts for the rich
and so forth really have a pretty loaded deck right now. So how can we help citizens
who have been shamed, who feel like it’s their
fault that they’re poor, or they’re not getting
educated, to feel like they can unite and
stand up to Citizens United? – Thank you for the question. The caustic influence
that corporate money has had on our politics– I mean, I don’t even think
the full story has been told. You know, just as somebody
running for office, I don’t take corporate money. So even without taking
corporate money, I know I’m going to
be vastly outspent, both in the primary
and the general, by people who do
take that money. And I still spend 60% of my
time raising money, right. And that just is a complete
waste of time, honestly– a complete waste of time. It’s not going to make
me any better because I spend five hours on the phone
asking people for money, right. That’s the state of
running for office. It’s a big reason why a lot of
folks who are well-qualified don’t, because it
just– it sucks. And so the question becomes
how do we reverse that? I think a couple
of things, right. Number one, we have to
center those conversations. I thought the
point that you made about Frederick Douglass’s quote
and power struggle matters. We have to center
the voices of people who suffer in the
conversations that we have. And we have to recognize that
the challenges that they face have nothing to do
with circumstances of their own making. They have everything
to do with structures that have created a very easy
way for money to follow money, right. And we’ve allowed the
biggest institutions in our society to not
just corrupt our economics and create this
kind of inequality, but corrupt our politics
as well by being able to reach over and control,
right, via access to money, the kinds of people who run. So, aside from centering
those voices, which I think is probably the
most important thing, we also have to think,
I think, systematically about how it operates, right. One of the
frustrations that I’ve had with the way the
Democrats have operated over the past several
years is that we’ve forgotten that the real
action is local, right. And everybody is focused
on the presidency and federal elections,
but we forget that real action is local. And I don’t mean to
make this partisan, so Republicans, probably
did the same thing. But they actually didn’t. Republicans knew exactly
where the action was. And so we’re about
two state legislatures away from the possibility
for, nationwide, Republicans to host a
Constitutional Convention, and ratify changes
in the Constitution. I want you to think
about that means. So focusing local is critical. Gerrymandering is probably the
most important local governance issue, aside from
money in politics. And I think there’s been a
lot of really great headway in the courts, and a lot
of really great headway that citizens’ groups
have come together. In Michigan, there’s a group
called Voters Not Politicians. They got 400,000 signatures in
a matter of, like, three months to get a ballot proposal
on our 2018 ballot so that people can
actually vote on nonpartisan independent
redistricting, which is amazing. But those kinds of
efforts matter a lot, and that’s where this
needs to be fought. And then, in terms
of money in politics, I also think that this
is a local fight, right. Overturning Citizens United
is a much hairier process at the federal level. But what we can do is focus
on state-level legislation that at least sunshines, and
if not sunshines, ideally, gets that money out of politics. I’ll tell you, in my race
alone, any individual can spend $6,800 on the race. A couple can do $13,600, and
a corporation can do $68,000, and all that’s above board. That’s not even including
Super PACs, right. We just passed, at the state
level, a policy proposal, or a body of bills,
now law, that they call Citizens United on steroids. It basically makes it
state law, in Michigan, that there is no actual
limitation on what a corporation can
give to a Super PAC, through dark money
and soft money means. But focusing locally
to try and undo that, or to block it where it
happens, I think, is critical. And then, the final thing
I’ll say is get out and vote. I mean, this is the crazy
thing about it, right. 30%– I mean,
probably in this room, you’re talking about most
of you get out and vote, but 30% in any given election
actually come out to vote. If everybody voted,
politics in Michigan and in the United States would
look substantially different. And the work of getting
people out and getting them to the ballots– that matters. That’s the only thing that
does matter in the end, right. And I think a lot
of the attention has to be paid around
getting out the vote, and getting communities out
to vote, which also means thinking differently about the
kinds of people who run, right. You know, one of
the things that’s been really
interesting in my race is that people like
me don’t usually run. And when I say, like
me, I mean like me in a lot of different
ways– young, you know, ethnic minority,
religious minority, somebody who has a professional
skill set outside of law –those folks don’t run. And I think that we
need to be empowering different kinds of
candidates, because they’re able to speak to the
electorate in different ways. And I think we start to
see a lot more movement in that electorate when
people actually see themselves in their politicians. – Hello, my name is Omar
[? Al-Hawari. ?] My parents are Egyptian immigrants, and I
am a dual degree student here at the Harvard Kennedy School
and the University of Michigan Law School. – Go blue. – Go blue. Well, I thank you for your time. So many of us here on campus
and across the country who are young Muslim Americans
are looking up to you. When we read articles like,
Abdul El-Sayed, great guy, not-so-great name. Many of us are
left wondering how a person like you is both
navigating about the media internal to Michigan,
and establishment politics in the state. Yeah. I– I like my name. [LAUGHTER] I’ll tell you a funny story
about how I became Abdul. So, my whole name is
actually Abdulrahman, which is as about
as intimidating as it sounds in English. And my parents got divorced
right after they had me, and both remarried. I was raised by my
father and my stepmom. And 1989 rolls around, and I’m
about to start kindergarten. And my stepmom looks
at my dad and is like, the kid’s not going to make
it a day with that name. So they sort of cast about
looking for a new thing. And it turns out that
1989, in September, guess who’s topping the charts. (SINGING) Straight
up now, baby– it’s Paula Abdul
with “Straight Up.” And so, at that point, they’re
like, this is his name. It’s going to be Abdul
from here on out. [LAUGHTER] And I told you about my
little brother Osama. My parents were–
you know, they didn’t want to mess it up twice. So eight years later, he’s
being born, and they’re like, we’re going to give
him a really easy name. It’s Sam with O on the
front, and A on the back. What could go wrong? So they’re kind of 0 for 2
on boys’ names at this point. My sister got [? Samia, ?]
which is a good name. And Osama is a good name, too. And [INAUDIBLE] is
a good name, too. But look, I’ve grown up
with the rare privilege of being able to cross
different worlds of experience pretty seamlessly, just
because of who my family was. And a lot of folks
who either don’t know Muslims or Muslims
who haven’t spent time outside of the
Muslim community, don’t understand–
like honestly, in their gut –don’t
understand how somebody like me could walk
into a community where people
haven’t met Muslims, and just have a conversation. Here’s the thing
about it, though. You just do it. It’s not that hard, right. And the thing about it is
that, as a Muslim community, we center so much
the Muslim thing. And it becomes– we have antenna
that pick up stories about it. And so it becomes the thing
that we’re all conscious about. And I’ve known enough, because
of my life growing up with my, you know, white American
family, that people don’t care that much. They just don’t. If you make it a thing, they’re
going to make it a thing. But if you don’t,
then they don’t care. And I’ve found
that Michiganders– they actually don’t
really care how you pray. They care what you pray for. And you know, and for me,
I know what I pray for. I pray for my little girl. I pray for my wife. I pray for my family. I pray for my parents. I pray for the University
of Michigan football team. Those are the things
that I pray for. And those tend to be the things
that most Michiganders pray for, if they know
what’s good for them. [LAUGHTER] And so, I knew that if you’re
willing to stand in and have a conversation– not
ignoring your faith, right, but also not
making it about your faith –but just having a conversation
about what you believe to be what’s in the best
interest of all of us, people are quite receptive. And you know, the
interesting thing about it is that there are going
to be some people who hate me because I’m Muslim. Trust me, I know about that. But they were never going to
vote for a Democrat anyway. And I’m not going
to make my life decisions about who fears me
out of their own bigotry, right. And for them, you know,
we don’t respond to that. And the reason we
don’t respond is because, for me, the
best way to get back is to force them to deal
with the cognitive dissonance of, after having eight
years of my leadership, that they have to
deal with the fact their life’s actually
a little bit better because of a guy named
Abdul El-Sayed, right. And so, you know, I think
for a lot of us, in a moment like this, it’s
really easy to look at the barriers in front
of us without paying as much attention to the
opportunities in front of us. And, you know, for
whatever privilege that I have or don’t have– would this be easier if
my name was Andy Smith? Probably. But here’s the thing. I also get to be the
first person to do this. I mean, that’s a real privilege. And I also know that,
for so many people who have never seen
themselves in a politician, that I know what it was like to
watch Barack Hussein Obama get elected and be like, that guy
is kind of like me, right. He may or may not be Muslim. [LAUGHTER] The funny thing is, if you ever
want something to laugh at, if you go look at
some of the sort of like, alt-right, white
supremacist blogs about me, they’re like, he’s like Barack
Obama, but openly Muslim. [LAUGHTER] I was like, thank you
for the comparison. I’ll take it, every day. But I’m pretty sure Barack
Hussein Obama is not Muslim. The funny thing about it
is Keith Ellison is Muslim, but they’re like, yeah,
his name is Keith. I mean, come on. So all of that is to say there
there’s a real responsibility, I think, to focus on what we can
do rather than what we can’t. And, you know, in
places of privilege oftentimes the
underprivileged focus a lot on the lack of privilege rather
than recognizing that, in fact, privilege comes
with responsibility. And the responsibility
of being the first is that you do it, right. And if you’re so focused on
what’s in front of you that stops you from
doing it, you won’t. I mean, you look back at– I mean the crazy
thing about this is that, looking back at the
real leaders in our history, people like Martin Luther King,
he was assassinated at 39. Everything he accomplished,
he did before he was was 40. And I’m pretty sure,
most of the time, he didn’t complain
about why it was unfair. Why it was unfair
was obvious, right. What he was focused
on was what he was going to do to make
it more fair for somebody who came after him, right. And I think, for those of us
who feel sometimes locked out, the job is to unlock the door. I mean, obviously,
that’s the job. Don’t sit there and be upset
because the door’s locked. You got the opportunity to
be the one with the pick. So we’ll pick it, right. Or the one with the shoulders
that will break down the door, right. [CLAPPING] – Thank you very much. – Hi. My name’s Kim Yannon. I’m currently doing some Public
Health, Health Care Delivery research at MIT. Recent graduate of
Michigan State University, actually, so go green. Go white. So– and in the wake of
things that have been going on at Michigan
State University– the heartbreaking,
heartbreaking, heartbreaking failure
of the institution to address the Larry
Nassar crisis –I’m really on board with the things you’ve
been saying about standing firm with our ideals against
institutions that have blatantly disregarded some
of the most vulnerable people that they’re charged with
protecting and taking care of. So, speaking to your
public health record, you mentioned, kind
of, the phrase, like, forming
unlikely partnerships, which is actually a really big
buzz phrase in public health. In fact, the Harvard Chan
School of Public Health just hosted the
Surgeon General, who used a similar
phrase when he was talking about his prerogatives. So can you speak
a little bit more to exactly how maybe reaching
out to an unlikely partner who may have a lot of disagreements,
in terms of other values, interests, maybe even
political affiliations, and how do you identify
those partners. How do you kind of
incentivize, like, an alignment of values, and
laying out, like, OK, this is valuable to you,
too, and really getting on the same page with that. – Thank you. So first, I just
have to say that the massive failure at MSU– I hate to say it, it’s just
one of the most heartbreaking things that I watched develop. And you think about the courage
of those women to come up and to say their truth. I just think that we need
more courage like that. And the other side of
this that often gets missed in the
conversation about MSU, and frankly, the conversation
about the Me Too movement, is the culpability
and responsibility of men to reach out and to
be a part of breaking down a culture of sexual violence
and toxic masculinity that we’ve allowed to
pervade our institutions and our culture for
far too long now. And if this is not a wake
up call for men to stand up and to speak about these issues,
and to engage on these issues, I don’t know what will be. And my hope is that men, as
a function of the courage of women to stand up and
call this what it is, will be willing to take this and
do the work that they uniquely can do around being able
to call this out everywhere we see it, right. You know, this concept
of locker room talk came out of the President’s
piss poor attempt to try and justify the things
that he said about women. But locker room talk
is a real thing. And if we’re not willing to have
a conversation with a young man who’s talking about
objectifying a woman, then the question becomes,
did we enable something? And I think that’s where the
locus of the conversation needs to go. So about unlikely partnerships. One of the things that, I think,
is really important for folks who aspire to leadership
to remind themselves is that leadership is
not just about finding the world as it is. It’s about creating the world
as you believe it should be. And, oftentimes, it means
being very vocal and honest about the values that
animate your work, and then watching as
people will align to what you’re talking about, right. Great political
leadership is not just– we’ll say effective political
leadership –is not just about being able to find what
people are talking about. It’s about being
able to dictate, in some way, what the
conversation ought to be able to move forward. And I’ll use a very bad
example of this just to see how effective it was. Polling showed that
immigration was not even on the top-10
list of issues going into the 2016 election. But the current person
who is president now was able to make
that an issue, right. Build the wall. It’s a solution
to a non-problem. But, by making a solution
to a non-problem, he turned it into a problem. Does that makes sense? And we have to remind
ourselves that, as leaders, we have the ability to move
the public conversation, not just to find the
conversation where it is. And what that means is
that, when people see you as being a credible believer in
the things that you care about, they’ll sometimes
find you in ways that you wouldn’t have expected. One of the things that I
learned at the Health Department was exactly this, was
when we were trying to move on certain issues,
we found that, oftentimes, some of the small business
organizations in southwest Detroit, when we were
advocating against Marathon, they were our
biggest supporters. Why? Because they have to live
in that world where the air is so poisoned. They wouldn’t be
the natural partner. But because you’re
standing up on something, they’re saying, you know,
that’s an issue for me, too. And I’m going to
be a part of this. Even though, traditionally,
they’re saying, well, why are you regulating
on business? Why are you telling
business what to do, et cetera, et cetera,
et cetera, right. And so I think it’s about, more
than anything else, believing in the values that
you bring forward, and the actions that
those values necessitate, and then being
willing to touch hands with people who sometimes
might come out of the woodwork, right. And then the other
thing about it is being willing
to say that there is no such thing as an enemy. There is such a thing as
opposing the wrong action in a particular moment. And the willingness
to say, we’re going to be about
values, rather than being about traditional enemy
versus friend alliances, allows you then to be very
thoughtful about being able to pick partnerships
across the various things that you work on, because you
are credible on the issues that you care about. I think, more than
anything else, people look for
partners that are firm on what they believe in. Because they don’t
want to be shown, you know, for being unable
to move the world the way they want to move it. So being able to say,
this is what I believe in, this is how I believe in it,
and this how I fight for it. Keep a big smile on my face, and
we’re going to move forward– you’ll find that people
come out of the woodwork and will want to work
with you on things, and in partnerships
you would never expect. And I think it’s being
firm on what you believe, driving forward on the
action that necessitates, and then being willing
to partner with anybody and everybody who wants to get
that thing done– recognizing that in the next iteration,
you might not be partners. But hey, that’s
the world, right. – Thank you – Hey, I’m Amanda Markovitz. I’m a doctoral student
in epidemiology and a former Michigander. – All right. You want to come back? We need epidemiologists. – Yeah, I had a question. So, you know, we talk a
lot about the disconnect between science and politics. And I’m so glad that
you’re bridging that gap, and especially that you’re
talking about statistics in a way that reaches
people, and talking about these stories
and anecdotes that really matter to people. And I wonder if you have other
lessons for us scientists that are trying to communicate
with our communities– maybe not running for Governor, but
on a smaller level –and ways that we can do a better job. – Yeah. So first of all, do it. You know, a lot of scientists– the incentives that
exist in academia sometimes preclude
well-meaning scientists who want their work to move the
public conversation from doing it, because it’s
not what’s rewarded. And I honestly think that’s
a big problem with academia, and one of the things we
all need to fix, right. Let’s be clear. If your work is not actually
moving the public conversation, then what’s it moving–
especially in epi, especially when so
much of what we do is about misaligned actions
of institutions, right. So be the courageous one in the
institution who communicates, who gets your work out there. Don’t just write the paper,
write the op-ed, right. That’s number one. Number two, oftentimes
the difference in the ways that scientists
communicate versus policy people communicate
allow the conversations to miss each other in the air. So scientists always ask,
what’s not known, right. That’s the question:
what’s not known? And then, how do I get to making
a known out of an unknown. Right, that’s like
the push for science. Policy people
aren’t asking what’s not known, they’re
asking, what are the implications
of what is known for what I can do right now? Do you see what I mean. And I think it’s on both of them
to be able to translate well, right, because most of the
time, if you have a policy person who’s not
trained in science, they’re always asking why the
scientist keeps putting caveats behind what they’re saying. Because most science would
be like, this is the– my work’s suggesting– like
last paragraph of every paper, right –this work suggests
that opportunities for future research
look like this. You’re like, no no no, what
does this mean for the world? And a lot of
scientists will always caveat what they
tell you they think should happen based on the best,
most rigorous work out there. And if scientists
themselves who are doing the best,
most rigorous work aren’t willing to give you a
firm answer, then at some point you’re like, meh,
nobody knows anything. I’m serious. And so part of what scientists
need to be able to do is speak like policy
people do, which is to say, of the current
opportunities that exist, this is the one
that would create x outcome that you are
interested in maximizing your policymaker. See what I mean? So being able to
speak that language. And then, one of the
interesting thing things that I’ve come to
appreciate about science is that we often get
so focused on methods, and the way of knowing, and
the epistemology of the thing that we get sidetracked from
issues that actually matter, and actually change
facts on the ground. And I would encourage
any young scientist who wants their work to shape
the public conversation– or even more importantly,
public policy –to ask, every question that
you ask as a scientist, ask yourself what the policy
analog of this should be. What does this suggest
about the world. And if you don’t have a
good answer, that’s fine. You don’t have to yet. But remember, policymakers are
constantly making decisions. We don’t have the luxury of
waiting for future research. Do you see what I’m saying? And so if you recognize
that to be the case, and you know that your
work can animate something, then I think it is
a responsibility to stand up and say, I know. I’ll say this, as a
professor, I always knew that my PhD students
were ready to graduate when they could comfortably
say, I don’t know. Because I think the
exercise of getting a PhD is becoming comfortable
with the vastness of knowledge, and what you actually don’t
know about that knowledge, right, what are the
bounds of your expertise. And the problem with
that is that most people don’t think that way. Most people, and the
nature of ignorance, is to claim knowledge, and
the nature of knowledge is to claim ignorance. Right. And if you think
about it that way, that’s why we have a bunch of
really ignorant policymakers making decisions, and scientists
being like, I’m not sure. And so when you
recognize that that’s just the social pressure
behind what you do, there’s a responsibility to
be able to step up and say, actually, I do– I know a lot more than you do,
and to call it how you see it. Truth has a moral
implication to it. And the last thing
I’ll say on this issue is that we have sort
of devoided science from the moral
imperative for truth. And if we believe
something to be true, then it has actionable
responsibility that comes with it. And our failure to action
to make that actionable– that carries more weight. And I think there
is a responsibility for the community to come
to grips with the fact that we don’t want to be
doing science in a vacuum– because we’re not doing
science in a vacuum. And the world right now, when
it comes to good information, can feel a lot like a vacuum. So if you’re doing the
work that fills the void, then be a part of pushing that
work out in the world right. So thank you for the question,
and you know, for all of you guys who are really pushing
the public conversation to be more rigorous and more
scientifically-oriented. Thank you. But keep doing it, because
again, the people who don’t know tend to speak the
loudest, and the people who do tend to be the quietest, so– [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] I – Want to thank Dr. El-Sayed
for inspiration for us voters, for activists, for scientists. That was really phenomenal.

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