Debbie Humphries, Ph.D., M.P.H., has been a consultant in the areas of diet and physical activity, behavior change, sustainability of community health programs, program monitoring and evaluation, and training in participatory monitoring and evaluation for organizations in Vietnam, Africa and in the United States. Her research addresses interactions between nutrition and infectious disease, as well as programmatic approaches to improving public health. She was recognized by the Connecticut Public Health Association with its C.-E.A. Winslow Award in 2016.
Humphries’ new book, Seeds that Change the World: Essays on Quakerism, Spirituality, Faith and Culture, is part autobiography, part advocacy. In it, she takes on hierarchies, colonization and the role of religion in our culture and spiritual lives. Raised in the Mormon Church, Humphries has been a Quaker for some 30 years. This is her first published book.
Q: Can you describe the book's content?
DH: The first section is a spiritual autobiography, with a collection of essays that address different elements of my own spiritual journey. There's an essay about my movement from Mormonism, which is where I grew up, to Quakerism which is where I've been for almost 30 years and the way in which I integrated both of those traditions. There are essays in the first section about my own spiritual practices and how those have evolved over the years.
The second section, titled “What canst Thou Say,” was inspired by a quote from Margaret Fell, one of the earliest Quaker converts. Margaret Fell, in turn, was inspired by George Fox to discover that what is important, spiritually, is it what you know, not what some expert is telling you.
These essays respond in some way to the question of what I can say. There’s an essay about the metaphor of grafting as a process of moving from one religious tradition to another. That essay draws on both the Book of Mormon and the Bible as the two key threads of my religious background, and in particular, on a parable from the Book of Mormon where a tree is moved from its place in a vineyard looking for where it can grow fruitfully. There is another essay that speaks to the decolonization I need as a descendant of the white supremacy culture in what is now the United States.
Q: Who is the audience for Seeds that Change the World?
DH: My hope is that the book will speak both to Quakers and to non-Quakers. Quakerism is a tradition that a lot of people admire from a distance, but even people within the tradition struggle with how we learn this tradition. While the book is one individual’s journey into Quakerism, my hope is that it is also illuminating about the practices as a whole.
Q: How has your spiritual world view inspired your work in public health?
DH: At the beginning of most of my guest lectures, and at the beginning of a semester for a new class, I tell the participants that my bachelor's degree is in philosophy, and that at heart I am a philosopher. That training informs how I think and how I approach the world.
I also make a couple of caveats about my own values, and how I work to be aware of my biases. One of the values that I hold deeply is that the end never justifies the means. We can never know the end of anything we do. Every time we complete a study we're creating an artificial endpoint because the consequences of our intervention or actions don't end. Every researcher runs the risk of creating an endpoint and then realizing later that there were repercussions. One of the ways that I carry this value, is by saying the means need to embody the end I am working towards.
Q: Flipping this around, how has public health affected your world view?
DH: The best story about the intersection of my public health work and my world view is that my thinking about decolonization started with a poster I saw at the American Public Health Association titled “Decolonizing HIV Research, an Arts based approach.” The essay “The Lies I Live,” tells the story of what happened after I saw the poster, and my journey with the concept of decolonization.
Last fall (2017) my reflections on decolonization led me to a book on mental decolonization by Ngũgĩ wa’Tiongo, from Kenya. He lays out two elements of a framework of mental colonization: one is the devaluation of the culture, language, religion, foods and everything else that's local, and the second element is the parallel elevation of the culture, religion, foods and other constructs from far away. It's saying your breastfeeding is not modern, and if you really want to be modern, you should be buying baby formula. You can see this same mental colonization in rural communities and inner cities in the United States, where food grown at home is not ‘modern,’ and progress is buying our food from a grocery store.
Q: Do you see a role for religion in health systems around the world?
DH: Absolutely. But that role comes with a caveat – can religions participate without judgment? The stigma and discrimination that has come from religions providing services while also imposing a moral code has been extremely damaging.
Traditionally religions fought for who was right. My own perspective is that with a diversity of people around the world, how could we think that one religious path was going to work for everybody? What matters is finding one that speaks to your deepest self. For religions to be able to play an effective role they're going to have to address their history of judgment and exclusion. As long as religious programs in the health care sector are judging the worth of others, religions aren't going to be able to make a strongly positive contribution.
Q: Can you expand on the idea the Quaker approach toward hierarchy and how that can inform other organizational structures?
DH: When hierarchy emerged as a topic in my reflections, one of the early threads was that with any hierarchy, someone is always pushed off the bottom. Hierarchy (often unintentionally) silences voices and differentially values individuals. John MacMurray, a Scottish Quaker philosopher, wrote about personal equality and functional equality to emphasize that all of us are personally equal, but in different situations our functional skill sets are not. The importance of personal equality is firmly embedded within Quakerism.
For example, The Quaker meeting I’m a part of is a congregational-based structure, with leadership transitions every two to three years. The regular transitions and the lack of hierarchy keep the power diffuse. When you stop having that regular turnover and you fix a hierarchy then you start seeing threats to personal equality emerge. This lack of hierarchy is not efficient; it takes time. But what outcomes do you want? Do you want to make lots of things happen that end up being the wrong things in the long term? Or, do you want to take the time and get the input of everyone to make sure you’re moving forward in the right direction for the long term?
Q: Have you been able to implement any of these ideas around hierarchy in your public health work?
DH: In teaching, I use a Socratic approach, with lots of questions. I want my students to know how to ask good questions. The scientific method is fundamentally about things changing as knowledge emerges, so anything I tell them is really a snapshot in time. There are areas where there is a consensus, but I also give them the caveat of how scientific consensus has been challenged and changed in the past. We're going to know something different 10, 15 or 20 years from now. I want my students to understand how to ask the questions and how to learn by asking the them.
In the practice-based Community Health Research course I explicitly address the hierarchies of knowledge that are embedded in the academic system. How do we look at those hierarchies and determine their relevance to the field of practice-based community health research? What does it mean that we have these hierarchies of knowledge, and whose knowledge is getting ignored? How do these knowledge hierarchies affect the development and implementation of effective and ineffective solutions?