The Responsibility of Listening: An Interview with Mindy Fullilove

April 26, 2016 - Boston, MA

“If you actually listen to people you learn shocking stuff. Eliciting stories is tremendously important, but you have to pay a price for it. You have to be true to the stories you hear, you can’t take them lightly.”

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor and research psychiatrist at Mailman School of Public Health, and CNP faculty and board member, does not take her work lightly. Her qualitative research in displaced communities comes with a deep responsibility to the people who tell those stories, as well as a duty to follow where those stories lead, even if it isn’t easy. “What’s important, is to figure out your values and stick to them,” she says.

When Mindy and her team wanted to follow a research project into the trauma experienced by women with drug addiction, they faced opposition from the more conservative establishment. “If we wanted to stay in the research center we had to study something other than that and we said ‘No, we have to stick with this problem.’” The research center would not budge.

“So we were out of the Center,” says Mindy. “We had to raise our own money. And we never again had a grant from the government. It was a big decision. But it was one of those things where there is no question what we were going to decide. We were way too deep in in terms of what people had shared with us to back away.”

“The thing about storytelling, is that people put their lives in your hands when they tell you these deep stories. And if you’re going to go learn people’s stories, you have to commit to learn what that story has to tell you about the world. Otherwise you are fake to yourself and to the people telling you that story. Having values is tough because you reach those moments when you have to say no and stand up for your values. If you cross that line, if you sell out and are false to yourself, it’s a much deeper price than the price you pay when you stand by your values.”

Mindy is the author of several books, including Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It and more recently, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities.

Root Shock was meant to add a description of what displacement does, but while we were in the field it was obvious that not only had displacement gone on in the past, but was also happening right there is front of us. As you have root shock more than once, what happens to communities? Then, from that position, how do they rebuild? That’s what we’re focused on.”

“There are no magic bullets or single things you can do that will make everything better,” says Mindy. “But there are magic strategies, multi-scale interventions that can make things better. The question is how can you do a multi-system, multi-scale intervention in, for example, Orange New Jersey, to address the many problems around public health?”

“Some people tend to use health as a synonym for disease, but many, for example, the World Health Organization, say health is health. And I think that it’s really important to think of health as health. Health is the idea that people are happy, joyous and free, that they’re able to function at the peak of their capabilities and able to use their energies creatively to solve the problems that confront them. They work well together in small groups, and in large ones.”

Mindy is currently working on a book about Main Streets, primarily focused in New York and New Jersey. She visited 100 different main streets and is now piecing those experiences and philosophical research together into a book.

“I didn’t know where I was going with the main street project. People were saying main streets were dead, but they weren’t. So I wondered, why aren’t they dead? What are they doing? What are they doing for mental health? So I went and observed them and talked to people over seven years and now I want to write down my observations.”

“Every book has its own process and you have to find the book that you’re writing,” says Mindy. “So there was one story from pretty early on that was just nagging at me and I couldn’t figure out if it was part of the book or not. It was at that line between personal life and book, but as we know in storytelling, it all blends. I finally gave into that story, that it was the start. And I realized that I was writing a January story which gave the book it's structure, one chapter for each month. Now I’m writing April. I’ll be done in December.”

“Last week I was in Cleveland. During my last visit I had been on a main street that was the heart of the black community. I was telling my colleague that and he said before that, it was the heart of the Jewish community. "My grandfather's synagogue was on that street." So this time we went to see the synagogue, which is now a Pentecostal church. My friend read a poem about going back there and experiencing that church, which was just remarkable. He had gone as a child to services there. There is always what has happened beneath the surface layer, always.”

Mindy is excited to be presenting again at the Center for Narrative Practice kickoff week in August for the certificate program. “I only gave one lecture,” she says, “but I think the faculty is fabulous. I was just really impressed by what an amazingly good time the students were having.” When asked what she’ll be presenting this year? “August is very far away. Who knows what adventures I’ll have to talk about by then?”

Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD is a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University. She will be joining the Center for Narrative Practice for the opening week of the certificate program in Boston this August.