Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Unsorting America: an Encounter w Dr. Mindy Fullilove

Few issues are as vexing or worrisome as the accelerating process of social sorting that is un-knitting the American people. It’s everywhere—in our politics, school segregation (which has returned with a vengeance and in surprising ways) and in our settlement patterns, including otherwise progressive neighborhoods.

Its what I'm learning is a “wicked” problem—one that must be unraveled from many directions simultaneously while each effort affects the others. I was fortunate to hear Dr Mindy Thompson Fullilove speak on the issue, in which she laid the issue out in stark terms but also proposed a plausible path forward.

Fullilove is a psychiatrist who sees sorting as a major public health crisis. Homogeneous populations are not resilient. They lack crucial antibodies. Look what happened in the Columbian exchange: two populations that had remained long-term separated proved unable to share the planet. The meat of the example is metaphorical, though—she’s far more concerned about the exchange of knowledge, norms and ideas than germs. And we're going to need all of our powers to survive as a species.

“If we stay on the path we’re on, we’re doomed,” she said. “I feel sorry for our great grandchildren. But just because our ancestors, who we even admire, made some bad choices doesn’t mean that we need to do the same.”

Speaking from a public health and well-being perspective that includes a healthy soul, she argues, “a rich person in a disintegrated society is less well off than a poor person in an integrated setting.” Mountain top compounds and a basement full of bottled water will not save anyone. As a psychiatrist, she knows.

“Problems are problems no matter who you are. Solidarity is the only solution.”

Here is her advice for planners:
  1. Keep the whole city in mind. We are not separate.
  2. Find what your for—what is your positive direction?
  3. Make a mark—there needs to be a physical expression of values around which the community can rally. (See items 6 and 9)
  4. Unpuzzle fractured space. Coherent, freedom of motion, connectivity between places (E.N. not just within them as Urbanists are doing)
  5. Unslum all neighborhoods. Make them places where people want to stay and its not about income.
  6. Create meaningful places, that people love and will defend if necessary.
  7. Strengthen the region
  8. Show solidarity with all life. We must have nurturing attitudes and that cannot exist in one realm and be left at the door of others. This one is hard.
  9. Celebrate your Accomplishments. People want to come together and sometimes a small achievement creates phenomenal momentum.
After the lecture, someone asked her how she transitioned from Psychiatry to Urban Planning and she responded with a familiar public health story about bodies in a river. If you want to get past crisis triage mode you have to look upstream for the sources. The city itself is an ecosystem that must be viewed holistically. Otherwise symptoms may be treated while the malady grows.

Her message was strident but not pessimistic.

"This stuff is hard but it's what we signed up for. We have to get to work."

For more information about Dr. Fullilove, see this excellent article in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/magazine/the-town-shrink.html?_r=0

Or check out her books.

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