When I was presented with the opportunity to write this post, I spent some time looking into topics that would fit well with this blog. During my search, I came across the question, “Do people who are ‘only trying to help’ sometimes make things worse?” I found this question especially relevant to the work that my students in the UVA Wise Pre-Professional Club and I are trying to do in our local communities.
From the time we are young, we are taught that we should always help others and be kind to everyone. That’s kindergarten basics, but the issue arises when someone asks us how we intend to help. When becoming actively involved in underprivileged and underserved communities, we often run the risk of coming across as clumsy or disconnected from reality and the nuances of the lives that the members of that community live on the day to day. There’s a phrase from Fresh Prince in which Will says, “He’s a little confused, but he’s got the spirit.” Sometimes spirit, that simple yet compassionate desire to do good, is not enough. We must understand the roots of the issues we hope to resolve before we can actually make progress toward a solution. We have to take the time to ask why things are the way they are, and only then can we identify the how.
All of the problems we face have context, and as scientists and medical professionals, sometimes we lose the ability to see that context. We use words like “community engagement” and “public health activism” without understanding the real origins of need. We have to start asking the correct questions, rather than assuming that we already have all the answers. In many communities, what appears on the surface to be a lack of interest may actually be fear or distrust. In medicine, we often become detached from the fundamental truths of the profession, which is that we are here to serve. Practicing medicine is a privilege, and privilege is derived from trust. Trust, like most things in life, must first be earned.
My students will someday go out into the world and become doctors. As a scientific educator, they continue to ask why and how. As I teach them and watch them grow, my goal will always be the same: I want to help them become better.
Tori Makal, PhD (they/them)
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry
University of Virginia’s College at Wise