2021 Capps Lecture Bonus: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha Answers all Your Questions

At the intersection of medicine and the humanities, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha sees empathy: “If there is anything we need more of now, it’s empathy, and unfortunately, it’s not something you can prescribe.” It’s one of several insights Dr. Hanna-Attisha expressed in conversation with Matthew Jaber Stiffler, PhD of the Arab American National Museum during the 2021 Capps Lecture on November 12, the final day of the virtual National Humanities Conference. 

Founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, Dr. Hanna-Attisha played a central role in uncovering the Flint water crisis and leading its recovery efforts, which she chronicled in her book What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. She has testified three times before the United States Congress.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s conversation with Dr. Stiffler inspired so many responses that she didn’t have time to answer all the questions from the audience. She answers them here (some questions have been edited for clarity).

What do you see as the best ways to build empathy and knowledge through literature to participate or collaborate with those who have less power to change conditions?

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: I think this would be an opportunity for humble partnership. People with less power have stories to share. Systems with more power should make the space to elevate the stories. It may be through oral history or spoken word or other non-traditional meansbut that should be celebrated and elevated. No one group has a monopoly on empathy or history or storytellingwe need to be deliberate in our efforts at inclusion. In academia and health care, so often we stay isolated in our cozy ivory towers, classrooms, hospitals, etcreal change happens when we leave those comfort zones and actively listen to individuals and communities that have too often been ignored.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, I just saw your AutoWorld mug–great choice! I was able to write an article connecting AutoWorld and the Flint Water Crisis, and I cited your study. How can we better communicate to people that what happened in Flint can happen to any city affected by generations of environmental racism and a lack of empathy that often comes from the top down?

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: Wow! Good eye on the AutoWorld mug! Yes, I agree, and that is why I wrote this book—to share that the story of Flint is not isolated—all over, there is a blindness/indifference/lack of empathy that disparately puts communities (and kids) in crisis. We have to continue sharing these stories and we can help do that through literature, but also through supporting journalism. We need more local, on-the-ground, investigative journalists to shine lights on these stories. They need to be deep stories, not headlines or tweets, to understand the history and nuances.

How would you like to see the humanities evolve and expand to not only continue to provide historical context and artistic exploration for challenging issues, but also perhaps become a direct driver for solutions to social inequities?

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: Yes! I think humanities are already a direct driver for social inequity solutions. Humanities are all about what it means to be human—what brings us together and what keeps us apart. Empathy and context (historical and otherwise) help us drive social change and foster equality.

Thank you so much for your book and recent testimony. I wonder if you could talk more about broadening the discourse around what ‘counts’ as infrastructure from the perspective of public health and human well-being? I’m thinking of care work, access to education, etc.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: Yes! To me, as a public health pediatrician, infrastructure is high quality child care, ending child poverty, paid leave, health care untethered to employment, stronger environmental protections and robust capacity building in public health. Not only do we have deteriorating roads and bridges, but we have failed to invest in our most important infrastructure, which is the wellbeing and health of our kids. More here in a recent New York Times article I wrote called, “I’m sick of asking children to be resilient.”

We commonly recognize that literary non-fiction creates a powerful impact on social injustice, but I would like to know how fiction can create an impact on communities. How does fiction affect how humans treat each other and the environments around them?

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: I would argue that both fiction, nonfiction, and other forms of literature (especially poetry and plays) can all have a profound impact on social justice and how humans treat each other. I think this is especially important for our youngest readers who can learn about social justice/injustice via fiction—think about Dr Suess’ “The Lorax” and “Sneetches,” “Harry Potter,” and the book I just read, “Echo” by Pam Ryan—and also the YA series “Hunger Games.” And other foundational fiction reads like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “1984.” Fiction has a lot to teach us about social justice and how to fight for it!