MLK Human Rights Week Distinguished Lecture Jan 20, 2021: Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA

Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA is scheduled to deliver the Human Rights Week 2021: Distinguished Lecture on January 20, 2021 from noon to 1:00 PM. This is by Zoom because of the pandemic, a commonplace method nowadays. I’m registered for it so I hope Sena and I can zoom in.

Dr. Reede has a list of accomplishments as long as my arm. She’s the dean for diversity and community partnership and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She also holds appointments as professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and she is an assistant in health policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. The title of her lecture is “Bending the Arc Toward Equity and Social Justice: Addressing the Imperative.”

Dr. Reede’s life journey has been fascinating and she has had a lot of thought-provoking and inspiring things to say about how she got to where she is in her career and how to help others succeed. In her 2016 interview “Strictly Business—Women of Influence” she answered a question about how American could improve its standing in providing excellent health care to all people, she broadened the concept of what providing medical care means. In fact, health care doesn’t just happen in a clinician’s office. Many factors influence a person’s health and how they take care of themselves, including whether they are impoverished. Poverty inhibits access to food, education, and jobs and there can be unrealistic expectations about what disadvantaged people can do on their own about this lack. She said: “It’s having expectations of people to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ but not giving anybody any boots.”

That rang a bell and I found a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in which he said almost exactly the same thing in the broader context of addressing racial injustice:

“Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so, they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

And again, King said: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Both quotes are from “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” published in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The web says the bootstrapping idiom probably had its beginnings around the mid to late-19th century, in which it was clearly meant to express an absurdity. The image of someone trying to lift himself by the straps on the back of his boots shows it’s laughably impossible. The idea that you could lift yourself up without any outside help was mocked. However, over decades it evolved so that it somehow came to mean that you could succeed without any outside help—although with difficulty.


I think one way The University of Iowa College of Medicine tried to address the bootstrapping idea was to create the medical school summer enrichment program for minority students many years ago. I recall being one of a handful of minority students entering the summer enrichment program in 1988 at the University of Iowa. The summer enrichment opportunity was intended to be one way to assist minority students excel in the basic sciences courses that would be coming up in the upcoming regular academic year.

I have always appreciated that boost but not all of my peers saw it that way back then. Nowadays there is a well-established Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Looking forward to Dr. Reede’s presentation tomorrow!

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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