A Newbie Dentist Finds Ways to Take Baby Steps—in Actions, Poetry, and Prose—to Lay the Groundwork for Future Social Action Projects

In March 2016, the Wilmette Institute first offered Health Care and Social Action (faculty Babak Etemad, Stephen Karnak, and John Safapour). In the May 2016 eNewsletter issue we published an essay asking whether happiness could be a definable goal in health. Now another learner, Alyssa Harris, DMD, has much to say about how the course has influenced her thinking and actions. She graduated from the Oregon Health and Science University School of Dentistry in 2015 and immediately went to work in a Federally Qualified Community Health Center serving rural, north-central Montana. Community Health Centers aim to provide a medical-dental-mental health home to the uninsured and underinsured people in a region. A relatively new dentist and mother of two young children, Alyssa, nevertheless, has set her sights on making changes in her work place and on providing a class on health for local Bahá’í children’s classes. See what she has to say in her Learning Self-Assessment and in the poetry she wrote as reflections on the units in the course. At the end of the course Alyssa wrote to her mentor and to the Wilmette Institute, saying,

Thank you for this course on health care and social action. I found it to be incredibly useful, and the final unit is so profound that I am still processing everything there is to study.

“The understandings and insights I gained in the Health and Social Action course are many. For each unit I tried to jot down phrases from our readings and highlight key ideas I wanted to remember to guide my future actions. Below are some of the summaries and poetry I wrote to help me process my learning. The poems that I wrote during the course were inspired by the moment I was in at the end of each unit.

“From Unit 2 (Definitions of Health and Wellness): In this unit I learned that health promotion is an essential component of wellness programs and that there is a direct link between health, wellness, and place. We must consider creating supportive environments for healthy lifestyles. My poem for Unit 2 is less about the definition of health and more about finding hope to be a health provider and avoiding burnout or compassion fatigue. I wrote it at the beginning of the course, when I wanted the course to remind me to be hopeful, which it has.


We say it is a “state of complete well-being”
Not just “the absence of disease”
We say it is a “fundamental human right”
A resource for fulfilling our capacities

Yet the news is riddled with crying needs
Yet the systems continue to fail us
Yet our doctors can’t find it for themselves
Yet suicide and premature death surround us

The illusive balance
sought by all
evades humanity.

Hearts are bleeding.

I have to breathe.


It’s not the “object of living”
So maybe
If we agree
We will see the HOPE in living
regardless of disease
We will see ourselves as useful
regardless of continued disease.

From Unit 3 (Models of Health and Wellness): I learned in Unit 3 that population and individual-level health must be associated with each other and not be treated or regarded as separate realities. The biopsychosocial model of health may contribute to the World Health Organization’s definition of health while incorporating the aspect of spirituality as a sphere of influence greater than other spheres. Health status is related more to health habits than to income. Consequently, we should make healthy choices easy for everyone in a locality. The poem for Unit 3 focuses on the challenges of being a provider in a way that is aligned with the biopsychosocial model of health care, especially in environments where there is a major push for efficiency and high numbers of encounters.

At times her pain is real
because she is normal
a perception altered by
clean hair
clipped nails
fresh breath.
Today her pain is not real
no signs of pathology
But we pull the tooth because
she jumps out of the chair,
rocking and screaming,
from the cold test.

When the pain is believed
we treat her normal.
Otherwise she is a “little off”
Maybe psycho.
It said Bi-polar Manic in her history.

We do what she wants.
Placate, pacifying
a baby in a tantrum.
We act like tired parents sometimes.

It comes from exhaustion and I ask them:
Where is the treating?
Where is the consoling?
How do we console?

We are humans too,
with limits and capacities
latent and acquired.
Regardless, we are held to a higher standard,
an art and a science that confuses even us at times.

But we can seek to see truth
through observation and empathy
because combined we can heal
and undoubtedly we will learn.

From Unit 4 (Happiness): Unit 4 taught that life satisfaction is influenced by pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Engagement and meaning may be more pleasurable to some than to others. We should investigate how these focuses give way to pleasure. The poem for Unit 4 is about looking to ‘Abdul-Bahá as a model of happiness.

I want to write
about health and happiness.
What it means to be
or how it feels to be these
things we all want.

But I can’t find words
that flow
give shape, smell, feeling.
Those typical ways to give meaning.

As if I don’t know.

I worry my words
only fit me.
Like custom-made
window frames,
the reader seeing my living room,
Not theirs.

I look to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
to show us what
these mean.
These words of health and happiness
that we all want and need.

How did ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Find pleasure?
Find engagement?
Find meaning?

He always had a purpose,
was constantly serving.

“From Unit 5 (Religion and Medicine): Unit 5 highlighted that spirituality is an important aspect of health care. Goals of the model studied aim to educate the truly scientific physician while regarding spirituality as a rational aspect of health care. My poem for Unit 5 highlights how medical providers are humans, and we cannot escape our humanity no matter how ‘clinical’ we try to be. I feel that is God’s way to keep us accountable to humanity and one reason we need religion. I come from a marine science background. I find nature fascinating, and I am not bothered by the weird, gruesome, and terrible things that happen in nature, all of which are natural processes. But I am really affected by horrible things that happen to people.

Nature gives the gift
of beauty and cruelty
in factual, truthful poetry.

Lambs are hunted
trees are burned

and it never bothers me

knowing the lamb was sick
cubs need food
the forest floor will sprout
one rare lily.

But illness in my brother’s eyes
is nature’s course
that troubles me.

Not like the slaughtered lamb
or charcoaled snags.

And objective impartiality
is stripped
like tape from skin
when human suffering
exposes smelly fear
of unknown territory.

And alleviating wounds of aching souls
is more than pills alone achieve.

“From Unit 6 (Discourse and Action): Social action aims to build capacity. Social reality should be assessed by the people for the people and not from outsiders looking in. Building capacity requires a vast increase in access to knowledge. The central theme to sustainable development is learning. Agencies must develop and nurture honesty, tolerance, patience, and courtesy. We should seek universal participation, ownership, and collective will. The scope of actions start small, and, as coherence is achieved, complexity can advance. Cycles of action, reflection, consultation, and study are conducive to progress. I found Unit 6 to be so profound that I am still processing everything there is to study. I shared with my CEO the idea that universal participation (which is truly the heart of social justice) requires building capacity and that building capacity requires shared knowledge flow and accompaniment. I hope moments like that, sharing these concepts with leadership, will eventually influence the culture of our work spaces.

“The greatest skill I hope to take from this course is the skill of consultation, relaying concepts to others in a more articulate way. My new attitude is having the patience to let the process drive the process and trying not to become frustrated by desiring something greater than what is currently functioning. I am trying to approach each day as an opportunity to consult, learn, and grow together as an organization and as a provider.

“How can I apply what I have gained? In my daily work the principles I have learned will play a key role as I constantly strive for social justice and improved health and well-being. In the development of children’s classes and my effort to increase participation, I will draw inspiration from the 2016 Ridván letter from the Universal House of Justice and the November 2012 document prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development to help create the attitudes required for progress.

“Despite my experience as a young professional and a new member in a rural community, I have made some small steps forward:

  • I emailed the staff at the Community Health Center and announced at a staff meeting that I was taking this course and offered to make available to anyone who was interested the published articles to help us better understand health, well-being, models of well-being, and how our organization could provide spaces to promote our vision. One colleague was interested.
  • My husband and I placed our youngest son in the Head Start program so that we could interact with people from all walks of life. We are actively engaged as parents and offer our services to the program—for example, offering parent education on oral health.
  • I made contact with local agencies to encourage oral-health education in association with the Montana Dental Association’s Healthy Smiles from the Start campaign and learned about more local agencies that, otherwise, I would not have known.
  • I took steps to begin to gain the trust of local private-practice dentists, who are skeptical of the Community Health Center.
  • I had a conversation at the Montana Dental Association meeting about private practitioners helping at our Community Health Center for a sealant day for children.

“These actions are baby steps that I hope will make me ready when an opportunity opens up in the local community.”

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