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Leading the Health Care Revolution: Public Diplomacy with Adversaries

What happens when your arch-enemy has a solution to better your own country’s problem?  In a July 2012 NY Times Magazine article by Suzy Hansen, she highlights the amazing work of MacArthur Fellow Dr. Aaron Shirley in the Mississippi Delta.

I met Dr. Shirley during my time organizing MacArthur Fellows on meetings of mutual interest.   His deep and personal commitment to taking care of the people of Jackson Mississippi is awe-inspiring.  A quiet, but keenly politically astute man, took a dilapidated shopping mall in Jackson and created the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation. In a one-stop shop building, folks could get preventative treatments, education, imaging, and other medical services under one roof.

After years of banging his head against local politicians, Dr. Shirley has moved into the global fight of bringing an innovative health care model found in Iran to his community.  Rarely do you hear about the socially and politically disenfranchised of Jackson, Mississippi in the same sentence as an Iranian health care delivery, but this creative vision towards providing excellent care knows no political boundaries.

In a nutshell, Dr. Shirley was moved by the Iranian model of eliminating the disparities of healthcare between the urban and rural communities  By eliminating geographical disparities (i.e.: bring health care to communities) then we can level the field of sound and quality care for an entire population.  Dr. Shirley’s community is an epidemic of poverty–with diseases that can be prevented.  How can one harness the millions of dollars that Mississippi gets and actually provide quality health care to its people.  Band-aid approaches will not address generations of neglect, invisibility, and political grand-standing.

In public diplomacy terms, Dr. Shirley was exposed through an exchange experience in Germany, listening to a delegation of Iranian government officials, to find a collaborative way that a public-private organization can affect positive change.  Creating opportunities for rural health care (either in Iran or the Mississippi Delta) is one filled with creativity, listening, engagement, and collaboration. You can read the entire article here.

Seeing health care as a social justice issue is not new to Dr. Shirley or to the public diplomat, but implementing and evaluating its impact on foreign publics is a new area.  What is also unique is that these communities have not been seen as a natural fit given there is a lack of  historical trust between U.S.-Iranian governments.  But, with the creative and keen insights from Dr. Shirley, he as continued a life’s work caring for his public.

Dr. Shirley, and his team, are what is called citizen diplomats.  Finding creative solutions to a systemic problem between adversaries can teach leaders how to approach what are seen as intractable problems and within communities.

Diabetes, obesity, high-blood pressure, lack of available and fresh fruit and vegetables, over reliance on processed food, and other “first-world poverty” health issues are killing our families, as they are killing other families across the world.  Iranian’s health-houses are located in rural communities.  Communities can come together to get the services and care they need from trusted voices from their own village/city.  It also keeps a community connected with a goal of taking care of each other.

Dr. Shirley’s team worked hard to set up health houses in the Delta.  It is now incumbent upon his team to monitor and evaluate how effective this model is in reducing mortality, reducing health care costs, and transforming the disparity between urban-rural health care delivery.

If we cannot see our adversaries beyond the way our government defines them, then the hope for peace and collaborations will be all for naught.  It is up to us, to search beyond the status quo to find creativity in all we do.  Who would have thought that a doctor in the Mississippi Delta would be inspired by a rural Iranian health care model as a way to take care of his community?

Dr. Shirley inspires me, as he should you, to always seek out creative and innovative approaches to what may be intractable problems. During my Leadership Los Angeles Fellowship as part of the Southern California Leadership Network, we met with amazingly creative health care leaders.  They refuse to bow under pressure (financial, political, or cultural) in not providing care to the communities of Los Angeles.  From the doctors, analysts, policy makers, to the foundations who give support, tenants of public diplomacy are at play 24/7.  Understanding the role of “place” is at the root of care, whether in Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta, or Iran’s countryside.  Leaders who integrate these values are those who will make the most difference in their publics.

For added luck – today I will be making black-eyed peas, greens, and copper pennies (carrots) to give 2013 all the good fortune that is needed!

Dr. Aaron Shirley

Dr. Aaron Shirley (center seated)