In 1965, Dr. Jack Geiger and Dr. Count Gibson started the country’s first community health centers, one in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and one in Boston. They were the result of a dream to bring primary care into communities with no medical access or facilities.
These communities were located in the poorest parts of our cities and the most rural parts of our country. They were the homes of the poor, destitute and forgotten. The residents were black, brown and white. They had no jobs, poor schools and no future.
The country — our country — ignored them, pretended they didn’t exist, abused, assaulted and demonized them. This was just the way it was.
So little has changed in 55 years. So much remains the same. Yet there is hope.
When community health centers first came on the scene in 1965, they were considered a threat to established medicine. They served the poor. They were run by their patients. They saw everyone regardless of race, creed, education, employment or beliefs. Much of America called them socialist, incompetent, only fit for the poor, substandard and a joke. They were hated, attacked, marginalized and ignored.
The communities they were located in saw them as miracles and an answer to their prayers. This new way of community activism, addressing chronic problems themselves, grew and flourished and thrived.
Communities such as Lawrence – poor, working class and struggling for jobs, food, medical care and respect – established community groups determined to bring health care to their homes and community.
These groups — made up of white, black and brown, rural, urban, gay, straight, agnostic, Christian, Jewish and Muslim folks throughout America — were simply tired of being ignored, minimalized, hated and discriminated against. They were tired of their babies dying and a life expectancy that was 20% to 30% less than that of white communities.
They wanted their kids to be healthy, their parents to be cared for, and their babies to thrive.
All across this country, from 1965 through today, communities of color, communities of poverty and communities forgotten rose up and demanded the right to health care. They did it themselves, and they did it well. They did it with guts, passion, belief and determination — and they won.
Today, there are over 1,400 community health centers in America, operating more than 11,000 health center locations and serving 30 million patients.
All are located in underserved and socially or geographically isolated communities. All are providing community owned access to health care to all, regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they do or don’t work, or what they believe. They (we) are the foundation of this nation’s primary care system and the bedrock of our communities. We are a rainbow in a dark, threatening sky — a rainbow of colors, beliefs and cultures.
We are what this country and this world should be and could be if we would just love, listen and respect our differences and leave hate behind.
Greater Lawrence Family Health Center stands with our brothers and sisters against racism, hatred, bigotry, discrimination and violence. We believe that black lives matter. We believe everyone matters. We believe that all people are created equal, and we know it is way past time for change.
Community health centers are the best example of social change through community activism.
Please know that Greater Lawrence Family Health and every health center across this troubled nation stands proud and strong with our community, our patients and our staff. Racism is unacceptable and must be confronted and stopped.
God bless all of you in this time of illness, social distancing and discord. Working together, staying strong in our beliefs and remaining determined not to accept the status quo, we can change the world, and we will. We must.
I am so thankful for Greater Lawrence Family Health’s 600-plus dedicated employees who work tirelessly every day for our patients and our community.
John M. Silva is president and CEO of Greater Lawrence Family Health Center (www.glfhc.org), which serves the primary health needs of more than 62,000 patients from its locations in Lawrence and Methuen.