America is an unhealthy society, and it will take individuals and organizations of faith to fix it.

Mindy Fullilove, M.D.
Photo by Chris Taggart

That was the consensus of a panel speaking on March 19 at “The State of the Urban Family: An Introduction to Faith-Based Interventions and Resources,” a one-day symposium sponsored by the Fordham Graduate School of Social Services’ Bertram M. Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty.

“What has eroded is the whole base of a diverse, productive and innovative economy,” said Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical sociomedical sciences at Columbia University and author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. (Random House, 2004).

“It does not matter to this economy how many trillions they inject into it in the next five years, it is not going to solve the rottenness underneath.”

Fullilove cited dismal statistics from United for a Fair Economy on the urban poor, notably that children born in the bottom 20 percent of household incomes have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of income earners.

What contributes to such lack of opportunity, she said, is America’s “disposable” attitude toward its own people—from its slaves to its farmers to its manufacturing base and, lately, even its service workers as it has begun to export service industry jobs.

“If you think of Detroit as a disposable city, is it not possible to imagine such a thing as a disposable nation?” she asked.

Using newspapers and magazines as “sounding cards” for what is going on in a society, Fullilove cited wildly divergent images of Michelle Obama—from “terrorist fist-pumper” on the cover of the New Yorkermonths ago, to an “American icon” on a recent cover of New York magazine. She sees them as an example of an angry, unstable nation that does not know who to worship or who to vilify.

If a society is not stable, she said, it is not possible for its urban families to be stable.

The nation’s hope lies in a grassroots model similar to that of Jane Addams’ Hull House. The Chicago-based Hull House was one of the first settlement houses serving the poor around the turn of the 20th century that advocated for progressive legislative reforms, such as child labor laws, women’s suffrage and healthcare, among others. It is often thought to have been the seed for social welfare programs.

Addams, Fullilove said, had a “fundamental systemic understanding” that society’s ills were her ills, too, and thus she was working to “fix it for herself.” She also lived among the disenfranchised, both to experience their needs and to network with communities on solutions. Lastly, Addams worked to create laws and policies from the ground up, as opposed to top-down.

“The policies of Hull House became the policies of the New Deal,” she said. “But there is no Hull House today holding up the gold standard of innovation, no institution or voice driving policy.

“[Social workers] must go where the problems are, and live with the problem,” she said. “There is no escaping our common fate, so we must lift our voices, and dig into our institutions. There is a Jane Addams among us who will give us hope.”

The Rev. Dr. Floyd H. Flake, former congressman and pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, said that it takes transformational leadership to rebuild the urban family. Flake is a pastor of a 23,000-strong congregation in Jamaica, Queens, and was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for his district for more than a decade.

“A transformational leader must look beyond merely social needs,” Flake said. His congregation sponsors meals and clothing for the poor, but also works to create affordable housing, and runs a charter elementary school for several hundred students.

“A transitional leader creates possibilities [so]that the next generation of people will not be those left behind.”

Other speakers included Ram Cnaan, Ph.D., professor of social welfare in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, and Derek Suite, M.D., co-founder and president and medical director of the award-winning mental health practice Full Circle Health.


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]