students on Serving The Underserved; Week 3

by Jennifer Bassett, UTHSC College of Medicine, Class of 2017

Our next session of the Serving the Underserved course is entitled “Community Health
Strategies,” and focuses on the practical aspects of how we can serve the underserved. I’ve been asked to lend my thoughts on the matter. So on a community-wide level, what can we do?

I am not an expert in public health; however, I have become extremely interested in the
upcoming proposals for additional bike lanes throughout the city. My significant other is an
avid biker; consequently, I have started riding more. I see the obvious health and
environmental benefits of such measures, and question why some citizens would be so
adamantly opposed. Obviously, bike lanes would encourage more citizens to be physically
active, while protecting those who currently rely on bicycles for transportation. Unfortunately,
this debate highlights a sizable hurdle in addressing the health of the community: negative
attitudes towards historically poor neighborhoods.

As I read through the daily threads in my community group on social media this morning, I saw
one outlining differing opinions on the upcoming bike lane proposals. It was mostly civil
discourse until one particular comment echoed a popular sentiment of the group. It read, “I
especially like the bike lanes at [historically poor neighborhood]. Now hookers can ride their
bikes to the hotels and won’t have to walk on those dangerous streets.”

At first, I was enraged. The implication was that the people who live and work in that area are
immoral and undeserving. After I calmed down, I requested the thread to be shut-down. The
author of the comment later quipped, “It’s called humor.” Though my social media threads are
often filled with discussion of equal treatment and respect for all, it appears that negative
attitudes towards the Memphis poor still exist, sometimes innocently disguised. I would be
remiss if I did not admit that I have found myself partaking in these inappropriate “jokes” from
time to time.

However, I would argue that these sentiments are often the biggest hurdle in approving any
community-wide measure that would improve the health of the city. I wish I was wrong on this
matter, but the author of this Commercial Appeal editorial apparently agrees, at least on this
particular measure.

“To some people, spending money in distressed areas to create bike lanes and convert an abandoned railroad beds into paved walking and bike trails may seem frivolous when there are more pressing needs.

But the residents in those neighborhoods deserved to have the same kinds of amenities near their homes as residents in other parts of the city.”

Going forward, I think our work is clearly outlined. Supporting community health initiatives is
not good enough anymore. We must be willing to confront our neighbors and friends when they “jokingly” cross the line and lovingly redirect any underlying negativity. In order to do this, we have to police our own thoughts as well.  Finally, we must lend our voices when community-wide measures are proposed that would improve the health of the city, and we have to ensure such measures represent the interests of the underserved. I would argue that we have a moral duty to vote appropriately when such measures are introduced.