News

The New Gen Ed Lottery System, Explained

News

Armed Individuals Sighted in Harvard Square Arraigned

News

Harvard Students Form Coalition Supporting Slave Photo Lawsuit's Demands

News

Police Apprehend Armed Man and Woman in Central Square

News

107 Faculty Called for Review of Tenure Procedures in Letter to Dean Gay

Ronald David Continues His 'Fantasy Rescue Mission'

By Jal D. Mehta

Ronald David, lecturer on public policy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), is a string of anomalies.

He is a professor at what was once the training ground for the nation's privileged elite. He witnessed four murders while growing up in a tenement building in the South Bronx.

He is a teenage father. He is an ardent feminist.

And he is a health professional who believes that curing social problems, not viruses, will solve the country's medical problems.

After six years at Harvard, David is leaving the Kennedy School at the end of this year to become the chief medical officer of the Washington, D.C. General Hospital. There he will continue his lifelong "fantasy rescue mission" to bring good health to the nation's poor.

What he will leave behind is a void that many students and faculty members say cannot be filled.

Growing Up in New York

David was born in Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in 1948 and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a community that included blacks, whites, Asians, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists and other groups.

He describes that first part of his life as "Edenic," but says that a drunk-driving accident that killed his eight-year-old brother when he was 10 changed his life forever.

"After my brother's death, it became an imperative to prevent those types of tragedies," David says. "My life's work is a way of saving my brother and rescuing my family."

After his brother's death, his father became an alcoholic, leaving his mother to scramble to pay the rent and raise her son and daughter. They were forced to move to the South Bronx, where they lived in a series of tenement buildings.

"It was my first time where I felt impoverished," David says. "In my education I felt like the teachers thought we were worth less."

Death was never far away. David witnessed four separate murders between the ages of 14 and 18.

He says that all of them are still vivid in his mind, particularly a racially motivated homicide he witnessed shortly before leaving for college.

"I was in the laundromat, and the building superintendent, who was black, bumped this white woman who was bringing in her groceries. Ten minutes later her husband came down, the two men had an argument, and [the husband] shot him," David says.

At this point, David decided he would go to the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo) to escape the dangers of the city.

Though David himself was not a street-wise youngster, he fathered a daughter out of wedlock at the age of 19. That experience gave particular meaning to the problems of innercity medicine he later encountered while in the SUNY-Buffalo medical school. David has been married for 29 years and now has three children.

"I became conscious that this was more than an abstract experience. It was a concrete experience of which I had personal knowledge," David says.

David held a series of jobs in public health before coming to the Kennedy School. He was the president of the medical staff at the Children's Home of Pittsburgh from 1984 to 1987 and then served as deputy secretary for public health programs in Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1991.

Approach to Health

Executive Director of Programs in Criminal Justice Policy and Management Francis X. Hartmann says that David approaches day-to-day problems the same way he does policy decisions: through a mix of care and personal insight and the belief that problems are inter-related.

"I had a cold that I just couldn't shake," Hartmann says. "'Ron,' I said, 'you're a doctor. Why can't I get rid of this cold?' He looked at me, and said, 'Frank, what else is going on in your life?'"

On a larger scale, David says the current focus in science on genes "drives me crazy" and instead thinks that the key to solving health problems nationwide is to focus on community building.

David looks back on the diverse, idyllic community in which he spent his early boyhood as a model for the kind of supportive environment necessary today.

"Health in a communal and spiritual context is a function of the immediate and intimate experience of belonging, of finding meaning and worth in that experience of collectiveness," David says.

David, who says he is spiritual but not religious, emphasizes that positive relationships with others lead to good health.

"When we get cut off from relationships, we cut our minds off from our bodies, and our health suffers," David says.

David says he has been profoundly influenced by both objects-relation theory and feminist theory. That society emphasizes competition over cooperation prevents it from being compassionate, he says.

"If we believe in the primacy of relationships, we can create political economy in service of those relationships, rather than mobilizing relationships in service of political economy," David says.

He sees the alienation of self in the capitalist system as a central cause of problems in society, but the failure to recognize this principle leads many to displace their anger onto those who are most vulnerable.

His perception of widespread alienation led him to boraden his focus of study from child care to women's health and beyond.

"The disparities in wealth we have witnessed lead to a growing anxiety," David says. "Rather than turning that on the forces most responsible, we turn the displaced rage on the powerless--the blacks, women, gays and bisexuals."

Teaching at the Kennedy School

David says that he came to the KSG for a three-week summer conference, was invited aboard in 1991 as a lecturer and took the job because "it felt right."

David's views, which he describes as outside of the political mainstream, were not particularly popular with the faculty upon his arrival.

"I think when Ron first came his ideas were thought by many to be a bit offbeat," says Brian S. Mandell, lecturer in public policy. "But he has been a courageous teacher...by the power of his ideas...he has won the grudging respect of the faculty."

While his views may not have always been so popular with faculty members, the incredibly varied collection of student gifts in his office is a testament to his ability to practice what he preaches in forming relationships.

Included among them are ornately painted Indian elephants, a cross from Israel, a replica sheriff badge from Albuquerque, N.M., a teapot from South America, a bell from Lebanon and a five-yen coin from Japan with the inscription: Have a soulful, fruitful relationship.

Beverly Smith, a student at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) who is in David's Kennedy School class, "Health Crisis in Poor and Disadvantaged Communities," says that she chose the course on recommendation from another GSE student.

"You find compassion in his classes," Smith says. "He wanted this class to become a community."

Another course David teaches, "Group Dynamics, Leadership and the Politics of Identity," illustrates his hope to broaden his students' minds in their personal lives as well as in their public roles.

In the class, students are forced to view themselves as members of the groups in which they belong: white, black, male, female, etc.

The purpose is to teach future leaders how their own group identities unconsciously affect their leadership decisions.

"It is the kind of class where you are forced to confront what it is like to be a part of the identity group you are a part of, and how it affects how people perceive you," says Andrea R. Zealand, who was a student in the class. "It isn't the type of class that can be passed on to other people."

KSG student Francisco Ingouville says that David's teachings have had a profound effect on his thinking.

"We were the subject and the object of the study at the same time," Ingouville says. "It gives you a tool to understand why things happen in groups. It is a tool no other class teaches."

As part of his commitment to a cooperative and not competitive society, and to a classroom where students feel secure and able to take risks, David finds it difficult to give grades to students. In his first year at the KSG, David gave A's to all students and changed only under the face of administrative pressure.

"I want to create an atmosphere where we can be playful at addressing these issues of risk and resilience," David says.

Diversity at the K-School

As one of an ever-dwindling number of minority faculty members at the Kennedy School, David has served as a racial ambassador on many occasions, and he is a member of the Dean's Advisory Committee for Diversity on the Faculty and the Curriculum.

"I was ambivalent in taking up that committee work because it is traditionally occupied by women or people of color," David says. "But at the same time, the issues were central to those of healing, mentally and spiritually...that are central to my research interest and my life's work."

He has been at times openly critical of the lack of diversity at the Kennedy School, both in terms of the lack of minority membership on the faculty and in the unwillingness of various members of the faculty and administration of all races to examine themselves through the lens of their group identity.

But he says that his initial method of handling the situation was not constructive because of a lack of selfawareness of the multiplicity of roles that he plays.

"I have come to realize the self-destructive role I played," David says. "I was speaking as an African-American, as a member of the oppressed, but not from my perspective of dominance as an educated middle-class male...I was asking the institution to do work I wasn't willing to do."

He still sees problems in the KSG's insufficient recruitment of minority faculty members and the lack of an emphasis on inspiring students to produce meaningful change.

"I think we are good at training managers of the status quo but not catalysts for social transformation," David says.

He sees his classes as an opportunity to give his students the abilities and skills they need to challenge disciplinary barriers and attack the objectivity of science.

"It was my effort to recruit policy wonks for the revolution," says David.

The Rescue Mission

In addition to his role at the D.C. General Hospital, David will also be on the faculty at Howard and George Washington universities, fulfilling his "fantasy" of teaching at a historically black university.

He says that he hopes Washington will be the last stop in his lifelong "fantasy rescue mission," where he can set down roots and become a full-time member of a community.

But ultimately the allure of returning to the hospital has little to do with abstract notions of community building.

"It will give me a chance to be a direct provider of clinical care," says David. "I love being a pediatrician because of the opportunity to be with people."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags