My work over the past year as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow and public health student has demonstrated to me how bittersweet community improvement efforts can be.
On one hand, I have observed how Tulsa-based organizations have the capacity to address major health-related issues, such as homelessness and mental illness. This observation has given me confidence in our city and my ability to effect change as a future professional.
Yet, on the other hand, I have noticed how some local and state policymakers may be missing the forest for the trees when it comes to improving community health because they have not tried to understand issues from a culturally informed perspective. Consequently, they seem to be limiting their own learning about communities.
Being less than humble when making decisions of great importance for other people generally leads to bias, which threatens not only the discovery of truth but also our ability to mobilize and utilize resources effectively. When we think about this issue in Tulsa, it means that we may struggle to resolve complex issues related to health disparities because we might not be seeing what is really going on in different communities. Most of us recognize that humility is conceptually important, but what’s the deal with it? Why should any Tulsan care about this topic?
Several months ago, intellectual humility appeared in the news: a large study showed that those who are intellectually humbler and more willing to admit that they might not completely understand a topic tend to have more general knowledge than those with lower levels of intellectual humility. When we think about this in a Tulsa context, the study’s findings tell us how important it is for us to not overestimate what we think we know about an issue and any potential solutions. Moreover, the findings also suggest that policymakers and other leaders might be more effective in what they do if they approach situations with an openness to what others might have to say.
I had a chance to see this type of humility in action when I was in college. At the time, I mentored a boy on a weekly basis as part of a school-based mentoring initiative. I will call him “Stanley.” While Stanley struggled at times to perform well on his homework assignments and tests, he had a passion for video games and art. He would often bring up how his classmates or teacher said something that left an impression on him and would admire them for their ideas. Chuckling, he would say how he wished he was as creative or smart as them.
Unbeknownst to Stanley, he was more knowledgeable about emotions and behavior than he gave himself credit for. I watched on a few occasions as Stanley used knowledge he gained by observing his classmates to be a productive teammate during games at recess and defuse conflicts between his friends. I also took note of how his classmates responded positively to his perspicacity.
By watching him use his knowledge so adroitly and conscientiously, I learned about how humility can open doors for us that we may have missed otherwise. Despite his young age, Stanley was an exemplar of humility who taught me the value of this trait. For our community, humility can allow us to learn as much as possible about our environment and be as effective as possible in our work.
I encourage my fellow Oklahomans to take a note from Stanley’s book and consider the ways in which we might be able to grow by making intentional efforts to be more open to what others have to contribute. When you approach a new situation, take a moment to pause and acknowledge that there may be things you do not know, especially if the issue is complex.
There is always a chance we might be missing something, so it is important for us to continually search for new doors to open and hold those in power accountable for their actions in this area.
Ashten Duncan, MPH, is a third-year medical student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and an Albert Schweitzer Fellow for Life. He is interested in practicing primary care medicine in medically underserved communities.