William H. Foege, M.D., M.P.H., APHA President, 1986

Social Justice at Home and Abroad

We are born into a world that is not fair. It is not built even, but we want to leave it more so. How can we focus on the practice of social justice? Four suggestions:

1. By concentrating on standard deviations instead of averages: It is possible to improve the average income in this country by simply increasing the wealth of Bill Gates. That doesn’t improve the standard deviation.

2. By being a voice for health in the rest of the world: But we fail to do so when we don’t pay our bills to WHO, when we fall short of other advanced countries in foreign aid, when we continue to export arms, and when we decide in favor of land mines.

3. By keeping a clear and ultimate goal in mind in global social justice: To settle for nothing less than actually closing the gap in health between the developing world and the United States.

4. By consciously being a collective force, joining with all public health people geographically and across time: In his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls, Stacey King had a very bad night where he made only 1 point, the same night Michael Jordan made 69. And King was asked to comment on his performance, and he said, “I’ll always remember this as the night I teamed up with Michael Jordan for 70 points.” We can look back from the future and say we each could do so little, but it was the time we teamed up to make social justice work.

Finally, as I told students recently, the era of Abraham Lincoln seems remote to them. But my grandfather lived at the same time as Abraham Lincoln. It seems much more recent to me. Lincoln has left no DNA in this world. He has no descendants still living. But he has left the equivalent. Indeed he has left something better — in the legacy of social justice. He has left his social DNA. And that is how we will individually, and as an association, achieve our immortality.

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