Dr. Redlener Reflects On a Career Dedicated To Addressing Poverty, Race, and Disasters

October 12, 2017
A small child sitting on her mother's lap smiles at Irwin Redlener.

Irwin Redlener has met thousands of children through the Children’s Health Fund, a nonprofit organization he co-founded in 1987 with singer Paul Simon.

When Irwin Redlener was a young doctor, he was certain that child poverty would end in his lifetime. “It was impossible for me to think that that would not happen,” Redlener said. Yet with child poverty as intractable a problem as it was nearly 50 years ago, he remains committed to the battle against it.

A clinical professor of health policy and management and pediatrics at the Mailman School of Public Health, Redlener heads the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute. From his offices on 125th Street in Harlem, he reflected recently on his long career at the crossroads of poverty, race, disease and disaster preparedness, which he recounts in a new book, The Future of Us.

Part memoir, part policy paper, “this book has been germinating for decades,” Redlener said. “I wanted to tell the story of what poverty is like in America by framing it as a question of what is possible for children who face big-time adversities. And to use my personal experience—children I knew and worked with—as the basis to explain this.”

Redlener has met thousands of children through the Children’s Health Fund, a nonprofit organization he co-founded in 1987 with singer Paul Simon to provide health care to disadvantaged children in the United States.

He often thinks of William, a scrawny 10-year-old in beat-up clothes he met in the early 1990s, who lived in a New York City foster care facility and came alone to a Children’s Health Fund mobile unit. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Redlener asked before he examined the boy. William lit up as he answered, “a paleontologist.”

Redlener was stunned. “It was so incongruous with the conditions he was living in,” Redlener said. “So I say, ‘How do you know about that?’ He takes out an old, yellowed newspaper clip from The New York Times. He had kept this in his shirt pocket, every day, as his kind of emotional anchor to the possibility of getting out of his situation.”

Years later, Redlener thought of William as he talked to a friend whose son also wanted to become a paleontologist. This child, however, had opportunities that William could not have imagined, including traveling across the country to meet a famous paleontologist.

William’s story, said Redlener, is the story of the inequality he has battled throughout his career.

Redlener got his start as an activist when, at 27, his eye caught a poster for Volunteers in Service for America (VISTA), an anti-poverty program created in 1964 that said, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” (The poster now hangs over Redlener’s desk.)

It was 1971. Redlener signed up and found himself in Lee County, Ark., the sixth-poorest county in America.

He soon ran up against challenges far beyond taking patients’ temperatures and blood pressure. After desegregation, the challenges of dealing with unequal infrastructure, such as unpaved roads in certain neighborhood, still roiled the state. When the clinic closed for the day, Redlener made house calls, but heavy rain often made dirt roads leading to the homes of poor, mostly black families impassable. Frustrated, Redlener set about organizing voters to pressure the county to pave the roads. He visited places where people were most likely to gather, small, black Baptist churches. As a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn, “I wasn’t exactly in my element,” he said.

It wasn’t until he left Arkansas that the county power structure was voted out and things improved, but Redlener took that as an indicator of what is possible through small efforts to organize people.

Today, as director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Disaster Preparedness, Redlener focuses on the big picture, preparing people for the worst and helping them recover from it. And his interest in giving every child access to opportunity remains. In August, he visited refugee camps in Greece, talking to kids who have been homeless for more than half their lives and asking the question he asked William 25 years ago: What do you want to be when you grow up?

He recalled the answer of an 8-year-old girl who hadn’t been to school since she was five: “A doctor.” Today, her photo sits next to one of his grandchildren. Redlener said that he can’t help thinking about the differences in opportunities those pictures represent.

“I really would like the same opportunity for education, health care and life opportunities for the children we take care of as I do for my own children and grandchildren,” he said. “What a great world it would be.”

—By Acacia O'Connor