Public health professionals face a wide variety of social challenges across the world ranging from the health impacts of climate change to the endemic presence of mental illness. In my limited experience, I often see a rush to throw technical innovations at a problem, hoping something sticks. In many cases, this impatience leads to unsuccessful interventions because local practitioners do not give enough time to identfiy the adaptive challenges that comes with changing attitudes and behavior. When I say adaptive challenges, I refer to the more complex, deeper, and often painful learning communities needed to wrestle with first. This work requires even the most experienced public health professionals to start as learners and take the time in each location to gain a better understanding of the distinctive histories and cultures of the local population. Without the this deep learning, PH practitioners can develop technical solutions that never leave the “gate”.
Deep learning requires a PH practitioner to create a safe space in which a non-judgmental dialogue emerges. Helping refugees, for example, to identify their values, beliefs, roles, and prejudices about menta health will take time. The recognition that mental health is present in one’s community exposes the stigma that surrounds that issue. PH professionals must develop the skills to help members of a community to do the long work of exploring their hidden biases in order to reduce this stigma and its attendant shame.
No one readily embraces change given the deeply embedded, often unrecognized practices, prejudices, and traditions that a person must be overcome. However, Ron Heifetz, a leader in the study of adaptive work, argues “people love change when they know it’s a good thing”. It is important for PH professionals to be patient learners in developing their skills leading adaptive work. Invite a local population to teach you their culture, history, and customs first through dialogue. Then new shared insights will emerge out of this dialogue that lead to more collaborative technical solutions.