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Lessons from Quentin Young: Bring equity into every decision

Mike Gelder
March 8, 2016
We're pleased to share a eulogy for our founder Quentin D. Young from founding Board Member Mike Gelder.

It was a beautiful spring day in St. Louis in 1972.  Another antiwar protest and demonstration was being held, this one at the McDonnell Douglas complex way out somewhere in St. Louis County.

As a graduate student in health care administration at Washington University, I would participate despite the transportation hassles and warnings from the very conservative faculty and hospital administrators who also taught our classes and had no interest in the Vietnam War and less in the protesters.

But, to me, this was no ordinary rally. The main speaker was going to be Quentin Young, a name I knew because of his leadership role with Medical Committee for Human Rights. MCHR was founded to provide medical support for Freedom Riders and others venturing into harm’s way in the 1960s to fight segregation in the south. Returning from those battles, Quentin helped it play an important role supporting radical doctors and providing an outlet for their political organizing around racial and economic injustice. And it offered a platform for Quentin to share his wisdom about the absolute necessity for current and wannabe physicians and health professionals to meld the “political” into being or becoming a health care clinician. 

I was especially excited because Dr. Young’s visit would give me the chance to meet him, and after some calls to the Chicago MCHR office ahead of the rally, interview him when it ended. I was a “health reporter” for KDNA, 102.5 FM, St. Louis’s listener-supported free-speech radio station. Having covered MCHR from a distance, the chance to actually interview its leader was a big coup.

During the speech, the doctor incredibly and eloquently tied together the shameful resources wasted on the country’s war effort, the death and destruction McDonnell Douglas airplanes were visiting on millions of innocent lives, the devastating health consequences for everyone throughout the southeast Asian peninsula, and the urgent need for all like-minded citizens to do everything in their power to stop the madness. Quentin and I got into the back seat while my friend Pete, the MCHR chapter president, drove Quentin back to Lambert Field for his trip home to Chicago.  

Unlike a lot of relationships that begin in back seats of cars, this one lasted nearly 45 years. Quentin, in his inimitable style, laid out for my KDNA listeners and me the thesis for why doctors (and by extension everyone in the health care field) must become political activists if they have any hope of helping their patients. In less than 30 minutes, he covered the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage movement, civil rights movement, free speech movement, and the anti-war movement, always emphasizing the power of the “movement” over individual efforts. Quentin explained that nothing significant happens without large groups demanding change, and most of those movements appeared futile to those in the struggle until they prevailed. Throughout the discourse he quoted Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, George Bernard Shaw, and a host of others, who I didn’t recognize at the time.

In that short car ride, Quentin revealed the few, simple truths that guided him and, by word and deed, he passed on to the next generation of health care providers and leaders: Changing the world is not easy, no one is going to give up power without a damned hard struggle, individuals must work together across race and class to overcome the incredible obstacles, but victory is ours to achieve if we keep up the fight long enough.  And if we don’t have the answer at hand, there’s a quote from a classic or contemporary play that will guide us toward it.

I knew in that car ride that this man needs a platform. His attitude and insights were unique. His role a few years later, as head of Medicine at Cook County Hospital, provided that perch for a while until the bureaucratic exigencies distracted too much from his work establishing Cook County neighborhood health centers in the poorest communities in Chicago.  There, young doctors and those still training could learn first hand what life was like for the patients they would treat.

And as that chapter came to a close, Quentin conspired with another mentor of mine, John McKnight, a professor at Northwestern University, and others to form a group that would hold the health system in Chicago accountable for helping keep people healthy. To be truly independent, it couldn’t be tied to an academic center, or any other institution that relied on “establishment” funding. That’s why so many of us were attracted to what became the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group. It was an opportunity at least once a month to get the exposure to Quentin we needed to be effective watchdogs, to hone our analysis to support what helps people and oppose what only helps the health system.  As that next generation moved along with our careers, that monthly “dose” of Quentin helped us get through our work days and direct our energy for the long battle ahead.

Whether board members always agreed with Quentin or not, we were overwhelmed with his incredible understanding of history, his thorough knowledge of the classics and his uncanny ability to apply their lessons to contemporary problems and commitment. He saw the issues of race and class as central to organizing and long before “social determinants of health” emerged in our vocabulary Quentin knew that “wealth makes health” and political organizing, education and jobs are just as important, or perhaps, more important to well-being than medicine. We learned from this sage to never, ever give up before winning. If you haven’t “won,” the battle is not over. His eternal optimism could be horribly frustrating if you simply wanted to whine or pout about the unfairness of it all. But that was who he was, our King Arthur, a true believer in right makes might.

When I saw Quentin several times last year at his daughter’s bright sunny home in California, where he had moved to be close to his family, he wanted to hear a thorough analysis of Illinois politics and how his good friend and single-payer compatriot, Pat Quinn, lost to the malicious Republican. Even as he was slowing down, he had little interest in looking back but wanted to hear every detail of what we were doing to prepare for the next election in four years. Despair was not in his repertoire. 

So now as we contemplate the struggle without Quentin, with us leading the charge, we are grateful for the long years we had together. We know that our exposure to his strategy, tactics, and most importantly his eternal optimism, makes us better people, better prepared to carry on the battle and right the wrongs about which Quentin cared so deeply.

We know how much work there still is to do to bring equity into every decision about resources, and to ensure that those facing the greatest challenges can achieve and maintain good health.  And all of us can draw from that reservoir of knowledge, confidence, humor, and optimism to guide us to victories.