Just as Early Learning Nation showcases the ways families, researchers and grassroots nonprofits and organizations are building an early learning nation—one community at a time—our Community Cultivators series highlights how innovators across all sectors build and sustain global communities from the ground up. We hope the series inspires your own early childhood work.
What if we let pediatricians run the world? Hear me out.
In April 2020, just a few weeks into the pandemic, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha penned an opinion piece in the New York Times that said: “To expect resilience without justice is simply to indifferently accept the status quo.” With the imminent launch of Rx Kids, an ambitious program to eradicate child poverty in Flint, Mich., the pediatrician aims to show the country and the world how to build a resilient community at a systems level. The program will scale up the promise of unconditional cash allowances as well as establishing new child care centers, expanding home visiting and partnering with groups like Imagination Library and Reach Out and Read.
Early Learning Nation magazine caught up with Dr. Hanna-Attisha (associate dean for public health in the MSU College of Human Medicine and director of the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative) to learn more about her new organization, her thinking and what drives her.
Transformative change is possible. Hanna-Attisha came to national prominence in 2015 by calling attention to the dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. It was a long struggle, but she persisted and organized and eventually, she won over the skeptics and brought about reform. “We all would love to see overnight change,” she admits, “and it can get frustrating when that doesn’t happen, but in this work, it’s important to recognize the long game.”
If things can change in Flint, they can change anywhere. Hanna-Attisha’s outspoken advocacy on the Flint water crisis prompted the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control to create the Flint Registry to monitor how residents are doing after the water crisis.
The emblem of the initiative is the Sankofa, the mythical African bird that’s flying forward but looking back and holding an egg in its mouth. “That’s what Flint is,” she says. “We are determined not to be defined by the crisis, but rather to be defined by what we can do next.”
Dr. Hanna-Attisha describes Rx Kids as “a society-wide hug for an entire city. We’re saying, ‘We see you, we hear you’.” And yet she maintains that the project goes beyond the residents of Flint and extends to reframing the narrative on poverty at a scale that hasn’t been tried before. “This is not about one city,” she contends. “It’s about shining a spotlight on how we could do better for all children.”
It’s not just about the cash, either. Inspired by the success of guaranteed income experiments like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and the Abundant Birth Project, Rx Kids will “prescribe” Flint families $7,500 in cash, including a one-time $1,500 payment to expectant mothers.
“It’s going to be coupled,” she says, “with arts and humanities and storytelling. And joy, as much as possible.” By running the program in a values-driven way, she aspires to rebuild the social contract and to have an impact on things like civic engagement, voting, crime, violence and trust in government.
Social entrepreneurship runs on trust. Top-down leadership has abused minority communities in Flint and around the world. That’s why everything Rx Kids does goes hand in hand with community. “We’re trying to do things in a way that restores self-determination and participatory democracy,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha says, citing a recent design retreat conducted with the participation of a mothers advisory panel. “They share their lived experiences of how hard it is to make ends meet, how hard it is to raise a family with limited resources,” she recalls.
She’s also building common cause with those she terms unlikely partners, including lawyers and CEOs. “When we break down silos,” she says, we find, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea this person cared about early childhood, about economic justice.’ When we make that tent bigger with partners who share our same passion, it allows us to advance this work.”
Immigrants make America healthy. Along with more than 18% of the health care workers in the United States, Dr. Hanna-Attisha was born in another country. Her family, she notes, fled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “We came for the American dream, and I grew up grateful every day, but also cognizant of what bad people in power can do to vulnerable populations,” she says.
Her 2017 New York Times editorial, “Will We Lose the Doctor Who Would Stop the Next Flint?” excoriated President Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim countries to the United States. Needless to say, the Covid pandemic raised awareness of—and appreciation of—immigrants working in health care. In the process, she hopes that the country will rethink its immigration policies and attitudes toward immigrants.
Reading recharges. When the pediatrician/activist/author/entrepreneur needs to recharge her batteries, she reaches for a book. “Reading is my escape,” she says. “It’s my source of knowledge that I didn’t get in school, and it’s also how I am able to see and appreciate the world. Literature and the humanities help us develop our empathy. We can step into the shoes of others.”
Young patients still give her life meaning. Despite her growing responsibilities with Rx Kids, Dr. Hanna-Attisha still sees patients once a week. “My clinical time is joy,” she says. “Hanging out with kiddos is what grounds me. It gives me the drive to do the policy stuff and the population-level stuff.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.