Tina Bollman recommended Jess to participate here. We met at her home that she is in the middle of selling and as I pulled up she and her son, Henry, were in the yard picking up pine cones. We chatted in the driveway for a few minutes and then ventured into the home that is now staged for selling and absent of all of her and her family's possessions. I can only imagine that felt a bit strange for Jess. Nevertheless, it didn't take us long to get comfortable with each other and start talking about the nitty gritty.
We met on July 3rd and I tend to feel pretty fired up around the 4th of July. I don't need to get into all the details here, but I dislike the holiday because of what we've deliberately chosen to ignore and how we've chosen to rather grotesquely celebrate the day. I'm on a roll of asking more poignant questions, anyway, but today I chose to dig even deeper, or maybe even pry, with Jess.
We talk about racism and slavery and wrongful incarceration and our president and the #MeToo movement and uprisings and revolution. Not to spoil the surprise, but we didn't come up with the answers. I am going to continue believing that talking about it is a good start, though.
JL: My name's Jess Leblanc. I go by Jess. At this time in my life, I'm a mother and a physician. I try to think of myself more as a healer sometimes than as just a doctor in the biomedical profession because I do try to treat people more holistically. But on a deeper level, when I think about who I am, I actually am trying to get a little more away from that and kind of separate more from my ego. I think more about how am I here - how am I taking up this space - and going deeper, really more as energy and space that comes into other things in my life - my environment, the people around me. And really, in the last year, I have put more thought into how I put that energy out to people. So, I am light. I am strong. I am present. Some of those things come to my mind more now than when I was younger or when I was doing other things in my life.
ACT: What concerns you? What breaks your heart? What affects you personally as you make your way through your daily routines? And what motivates you to do something about it?
JL: Well, I'll tell you a little bit of one of my core values and that was based in my anthropological studies. This idea of participant observation - thinking about how to learn someone else's perspective by really participating in what they experience. You can't really fully understand someone until you experience what they experience. I think I learned that when I was 18 and I'm still trying to figure out how to do that all the time.
I'm a white woman, born into privilege. I feel like I'm seeking suffering sometimes. I'm really seeking out how to understand all the suffering that has gone on in order to make our country possible. So, suffering on the backs of slaves and immigrants. And that is really difficult to understand. I don't think I'll ever fully feel or understand the trauma that those people went through and that has been passed along to their [descendants] that are here now and that are still experiencing a lot of trauma at the hand of government and the police force. At the same time, I want to try to celebrate in the solutions of those things. I don't think we're really even close to healing from that.
I think there's some drastic solutions out there, like reparations for people whose ancestors have experienced a lot of trauma and who have died and suffered under slavery. And people that have been wrongly incarcerated. Our national community of African American people, I'm just really sad at how they've been treated - at how we continue to demonstrate racism. I see it on the backs of cars, still, driving around town. And I'm just completely shocked by it. I wish somehow I could have more influence over helping people heal from all of that. I think about it on a daily basis. I listen to things about it. I try to read about it. I try to teach my kids about it. And I'm not sure what else to do. I mean, we have pictures of slave owners on our money. Every day, we look at their picture. I'm completely just flabbergasted that we're not doing more. To get my opinion on it is just one opinion and there's a full spectrum of opinions on it, but it is something that isn't talked about enough. It's really kind of hidden. It's gruesome. There's gruesome things happening on a daily basis that we just sort of sweep under the rug. And I have a hard time with that.
ACT: If you have this feeling of sadness or shame that we just continue to not apologize and not make things right, what can you do? Communicate with your children or set the example or be a good doctor - are those things making you feel like you're doing something?
JL: I think that that's evolving for me. Probably in the last 15 years of my life I've focused more on healthcare for all. So, having a lot of equality in healthcare and always working in a place where no one is turned away. That's fulfilled in the sense that where I chose to do my residency, where I chose to practice out of residency, where I chose to work now - we see people of all socioeconomic status, all types of insurance. And, really, community health centers are the only places you can go and know that no one's getting turned away. Smaller practices can't afford to take the uninsured or Medicaid, so community health centers do have this ability... they receive federal funding to serve the whole community. So, in that way, I feel like the choices I've made in my practice do serve all people. And then also a very conscious effort to maintain that from patient to patient. So, making sure I can speak Spanish or making sure they have an interpreter if they need it.
I don't want to go on too much of a tangent here, but there has been, through history, a lack of attention payed towards patients that have experienced trauma and how that affects their health. Fortunately, now there's a lot more knowledge about that and how patients have been traumatized by the medical care system - especially minority populations. So, the more we can make that a welcoming, non-judgmental, calm, understanding environment where we can establish trust and know that patients are going to receive the same type of care from me no matter the color of their skin, no matter how much money they have, that's really at the core of my daily practice. It's really important to me. It's part of my mission. So, it's not on a very grand scale, but over years, I'm touching hundreds of people and hopefully that point is coming across to everyone.
ACT: What do we mean to each other, individual to individual?
JL: I'm on a big love kick right now, so I do try to, as much as I can, keep myself open to having a loving, open presence. And so, I really do want to promote love between people. I know that sounds a little bit vague and optimistic. In times of conflict or stressful situations - in line at the grocery store with a bunch of people behind me, I could easily be rushing to find my card, but if I just stop and look at the person helping me and say, Hey, how's your day going? then there's this connection that I find really satisfying. I think they do, too. If we can all do more of that, then we meet more people and I think we gain something from it and we can give something to them, too.
ACT: When your approach of showing people love and being soft and kind doesn’t work, how does that make you feel? And what can you do about it?
JL: My intuition is, related to a project like this, is actually to get those people behind the mic and really ask them the same types of questions to understand where they're coming from. Not to glorify it in any way because it doesn't align with my beliefs at all; I think it's really toxic and negative to growing a cooperative, creative community. I do think, as I said, being born in a place of privilege and now being even more privileged in a leadership position as a physician, you have to speak up in the times where you're seeing something that is wrong - where there is racism happening, when there is bullying happening. And those things are not always really obvious in the beginning. So, I, in my day of working two jobs and helping keep the house together and my three kids and all these things, I have to be really mindful and present to recognize when those things are happening and I can make a difference and speak up and say something. Because, often times, the subtle racism or the subtle bigotry... I'm not going to be able to track down the guy that's rolling coal, but I am going to be able to hold up a peace sign. And I may end up seeing him in the doctor's office a few weeks later.
So, it's important for us to stick to that and keep speaking up for people that maybe cannot or don't have as much say in things. I think it's really important. Right now, for me, to stick up for those patients of mine that are not as accustomed to our culture or not as accustomed to our language and make sure they know what their rights are… I do that probably on a weekly basis. So, I can be kind and loving and accepting of them, but I also need to call the right resources in to get them what they need.
ACT: Killing them with kindness, which is what you are saying, often doesn't seem to be enough. It's such a good idea and sentiment, but it also seems to be rather ineffective against sex trafficking and our president and dirty politics and the republicans fleeing the state so they don't have to vote, and domestic violence and heroine addiction. There's got to be more. And I was hoping you had the secret.
JL: It's not something that I have come to just on my own. I think I've learned the most from my patients, honestly. And my patients that have really struggled and can tell me straight up what has helped them. And specifically my patients that have opiate use disorder and who have basically been treated very poorly because of their drug addiction, once they've had some sort of recovery and are healing and are in a different space, can come to me and say, You were the only person that sat here and accepted me where I was at and didn't treat me differently.
I agree that we need an uprising. We need something bigger than just being kind, but I do really believe and I've seen that one of the solutions is to be just open and present and kind and loving to wherever the person is at - whatever is there in front of you. I have patients that do not hold the same beliefs I do, but if I can say, These are my beliefs and I'm still gonna be here for you and open and kind and treat you, they actually might change their mind. I know that's not a quick solution, but I do think over time, when we can be in these leadership positions and we can give to people, that you can see people's minds change. Trust has to be established.
But on the other hand, I think some major reparations need to be given to the [descendants] of slaves. Some major money and resources and sentiment from high leadership government positions needs to be given to people so that folks can become more equal socioeconomically. There needs to be some voting and laws around how to help people heal and recover. This is going to keep going on. This is necessary. We made a feeble attempt at trying to give tiny parcels of land to native people after we raped and pillaged the land… I can go and on. We need to start talking about that. We need to put that on the table. We need to understand that our capitalist society is built on this. And we have not repaid our debt in any way.
And so, we are not going to change people's minds until we do; until they feel it in their pocketbook; until they feel it in their daily life. If we put ourselves completely... if we really try to meditate and close our eyes and think about what it is like for those people that are not born into privilege - are not white, middle-class folks - then maybe we can come to more understanding of how to help people, how to make things more equal, how to avoid those people being victims of violence and incarceration and struggle. I wish I had the magic answer for you. Our conversation is part of it.
ACT: What does community mean to you?
JL: Community is everywhere I go. I wouldn't give it a name. Sitting here with you is community. When I listen to the radio, the story I'm hearing, I feel part of that community. When I'm watering my plants, I'm like, Here's some water. Thanks for the oxygen. I feel a connection to the Earth and the plants and the food I eat. I don't have a strong sense of an enclosed space as my community. It's really open and broad and going even outside of the world to the universe. We're all made of these atoms and space and we are all connected. We are all really this energy and particles that are influencing one another, for sure. We're all part of that.
ACT: Do you feel a sense of purpose?
JL: I do. Isn't our time up yet? I do think my purpose is to connect with people and life in general - plants, animals, people. I think that is probably my purpose. I feel a real sense of peace and focus when that's happening for me. It feels authentic. I think that's organic. It can move in and out of projects or connections or things that make me really joyful and things that can make me really sad. I don't know if I can put more words to it than that.
ACT: What gives you hope for a better future?
JL: Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of hope... I mean, right now, the direction things are going, the word better I'm not sure about. I probably more often than not think about how it's so great that we get to be here, but this is not gonna last. Just because of the way the environment is being treated, the way we haven't been able to get along in so many ways. It's so sad to say that. I'm sorry. Because I am an optimist. I am a really positive person, but I have had to come to a place when I sit and think about things that, in a broad future, I don't have a lot of hope right now. That could change. I hope it changes. I have hope that my hope changes.
I still feel optimistic in my day-to-day life, just in being in the present, because it feels good. I feel good when I can connect with you sitting here talking. I feel good when my son and I can be out here taking care of our plants and animals and being together and talking about things. That keeps me positive and happy. When I do good things for people, that makes me feel good, too. We both get something out of that. I like that. But a better future, I'm not sure. I just try not to get depressed about it. It's easy to get really sad and down about those thoughts and I can't. I have to just keep trying to connect with people and create small changes. Having kids, having young beings around, helps me.
With the political situation, with having children, with being on the path I'm on, I have sought out more of a spiritual connection, somehow, which I've never had before. And I think with meditation and some forms of Buddhism, I have found a little bit of grounding in suffering. Everyone is suffering; we can all sort of relate to that on some level. I don't identify with the word hope so much. Things are just the way they are right now. Maintaining this grounding and being open to change and putting out positivity and understanding that we're all connected - those aren't solutions, but if I live that way I'm hoping the momentum of that will just keep flowing out. But I like this conversation with you because you keep challenging me on that. Hey, that's not enough. And I think you're right.