Listening at the Community Meeting for The Dunbar

Last week, I attended a meeting at the Spring of Hope Church in Springfield.  People gathered to hear community leaders explain the dire financial circumstances of the Dunbar Community Center.  The Dunbar is a century-old institution located in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield, MA.  As with many community centers, the Dunbar provides exercise classes, team sports, youth leadership programs and senior health initiatives.  Basketball is at the heart of the Dunbar.  Former NBA player Travis Best participated in youth basketball programs here. He described his experiences as exhilarating.   Best says that games at the Dunbar “tested your heart and toughened you up.

Yet, the Dunbar is more than a place to play basketball.  Mason Square is traditionally an African-American neighborhood and has a growing population of Latinos.  The Dunbar celebrates the achievements & honors the challenges experienced by people of color.  In February 2012, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick spoke at the Dunbar, observing  Black History Month with a poignant account of his grandmother who participated in ”small acts of defiance in the face of humiliation.”

The Dunbar is home to the Mason Square Health Task Force (MSHTF).  This coalition strives to improve the health of the Mason Square neighborhood through information sharing, capacity building and policy change.  MSHTF is active on social media and focuses on the social determinants of health.

Basketball monument in Mason Square

Basketball monument in Mason Square

I was introduced to the Mason Square neighborhood through my work at Baystate Health.  In 2011, I attended a meeting about a possible collaboration between Baystate Health and community partners for a grant from the National Library of Medicine.  That grant proposal never happened.  But… that initial meeting lead to an invitation to join the Healthy Community Collaborative (HCC) of Mason Square.  HCC was my opportunity to meet with social justice advocates.

As a librarian, I am not always sure what my role is at community meetings.  I listen.  When I sit at the table to listen, I hear stories.  I hear frustration.  I hear hope.   I hear confusion.  I hear determination.  For over a year, I listened at HCC meetings.  I did offer my insights at times.  Mostly, I tried to apply health literacy principles to some of the materials generated by HCC.  I had mixed success.   I learned that many different points of view existed within a single neighborhood.  And, everything gets more complicated when a strident member (who always showed up at meetings) won’t let go of a strongly held strategic belief system—despite its lack of success.

Oh, to have a meeting with the quiet ones… !

The HCC meetings ended after a year or so.  I see some of the participants at events such as last week’s meeting.  Sometimes, I look around the room for other representatives of Baystate Health.  Sometimes, I am the only representative.  That motivates me.  If we are to serve the health needs of these neighborhoods, more of us need to be out in the community.  We need to be listening, out in the community.  Not only in clinic.