The Future of Us
Columbia University Press, 2017
It is difficult to wrap ones head around the challenge of poverty. Often we either bury our heads in the sand or become obsessed with some superficial maneuver we convince ourselves will act like a cure all or just tip the balance enough to solve the problem. Both gestures are hollow, ineffectual, and motivated more out of guilt than a sense of genuine aide. We ought to feel shame and guilt. However, this isn’t the same thing as feeling hopeless nor is it accusatory. Instead, recognizing our willful ignorance allows us to remove our blinders, to help others. The task is huge but there are ways to effectively chip away at it.
One person who has spent his entire life focused on raising the health standards of children both here in the United States and abroad is Dr. Irwin Redlener. His work and career has not just been about alleviating poverty but actively working to repair and build our nation’s healthcare safety net so the most vulnerable among us, children, can achieve their dreams. It sounds trite or perhaps far too idealistic, but Redlener in his memoir The Future of Us demonstrates to readers that it most certainly is not. In fact, Redlener recounting of his time as a pediatrician in deeply rural Arkansas or pushing back against child abuse in southern Florida shows us idealism is merely the anchor for practicality.
Poverty sits at the crossroads of white supremacy and economic injustice as Redlener’s experiences across vastly different regions of the United States over a fifty year career makes clear. To contend otherwise isn’t just ignorant but casually hateful. AS Redlener recounts the challenges he faced in Arkansas, Florida, and New York, we get an un-self-conscious sketch of a man who isn’t just indignant about child poverty, neglect of children’s rights, and lack of social justice but is active in creating and participating in solutions. Redlener’s solutions are a combination of small gestures and committed acts of self-sacrifice as well as epic gestures mobilizing millions to aid millions making The Future of Us a fascinating read.
One such epic gesture is perhaps what Redlener is best known for and has seen the most lasting good come from–the Children’s Health Fund. Founded in the 1980s alongside musician Paul Simon, the CHF brought medical staff and resources to what many and most would see as criminally under-served communities in New York through the creation of mobile clinics. These clinics are now used across the nation. It was a simple idea–bring healthcare to the homeless, the poor instead of expecting them to come to you. The CHF mobile clinics served as a template for effective outreach in both urban and rural communities while also being the baseline for disaster relief.
There are also surreal moments almost throwaway anecdotes serving to give readers a sense of both how real and how odd it was to be an activist during the 70s and 80s. For example, Redlener found himself working alongside many of the organizers of huge aide rallies that characterized the 1980s such as USAFA (USA for Africa). It was during this time he had the experience of being in a meeting with Michael Jackson who with tears running down his face was enraged he hadn’t been consulted to write the song for the organization. The celebrities Redlener encounters in his drive to fight child poverty are committed in their way but it is stories of ordinary encounters with patients, which really give the book its strength. Redlener makes it a point to tell the stories of those he’s served allowing himself to fall into the background. This move allows readers to see the effects of committed action on the individual, the kind of act that can be undertaken by anyone.
Ultimately, The Future of Us isn’t a memoir about Redlener but a tale told to inspire others to engage in issues, to show them that politics and policy isn’t some airy thing divorced from their experience. Rather, meeting the needs of the millions of children in poverty and lacking healthcare is something readers can not only wrap their minds around but also act to rectify. For Redlener, the quality of life a child starts out with not only effects their health and prosperity as adults, it also directly affects the health and prosperity of others. To ignore child poverty, to deny appropriate healthcare for children will enfeeble those children and cripple us adults.
About the Author
Irwin Redlener is president and cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and the Program on Child Well-Being and Resilience at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He is also a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.