John A. Rich: Black men, trauma, and nonviolence

Now that I’m out of grad school and back in the workforce, I can appreciate the unique public health perspective that Drexel’s School of Public Health imparts upon its students. Other schools don’t focus as heavily on health disparities, trauma, and adverse childhood experiences. One of the reasons these issues are at the center of Drexel’s philosophy is because of the presence of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, headed by John A. Rich, MD, MPH. John Rich, director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice

Dr. Rich grew up in a middle-class home--his mother was a teacher and his father was a dentist. After completing his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth and earning his MD at Duke, he became an emergency room doctor at Boston City Hospital.

While at Boston City Hospital, Rich saw a steady stream of young Black men come through the emergency room with stabbing and gunshot wounds. He also began to realize that everyone, including the other medical staff, saw these men as perpetrators rather than victims. The general consensus was that these men had done something to get themselves injured instead of what was obvious to Rich: these young Black men were truly victims.

Because of his compassionate streak, Rich began interviewing these men to learn more about their lives and what led to them returning to the ER over and over. He learned that the injuries that brought them to him were often due events outside their control--a robbery, a few wrong words to the wrong person, a simple accident that escalated to violence. After talking with them as they received treatment, Rich realized that the men were suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Even worse, their injuries were stitched up and they were sent right back out to the same environment that brought them to the ER.

Rich wrote a book about these experiences called Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. I read this book as part of a class I took with Sandra Bloom (who works closely with Rich). Reading it was easily the most emotionally moving and motivating activity I participated in at Drexel.

In 2006, Rich was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work:

John Rich is a physician, scholar, and a leader in addressing the health care needs of one of the nation’s most ignored and underserved populations—African-American men in urban settings. By linking economic health, mental health, and educational and employment opportunities to physical well-being, Rich’s work on black men’s health is influencing policy discussions and health practice throughout the United States...By focusing on the realities of the lives of young African-American men, John Rich designs new models of health care that stretch across the boundaries of public health, education, social service, and justice systems to engage young men in caring for themselves and their peers.

Now, Rich is a professor and head of the Health Management and Policy department at Drexel University School of Public Health. He is also the director and founder of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, a non-profit dedicated to applying principles of non-violence and trauma-informed care to public health practice and evaluating the results of the programs that embody those values.

While I was completing my MPH, I unfortunately did not work with Rich--in fact I'm not sure I ever even met him. However, I had the good fortune of having Dr. Jonathan Purtle, who worked closely with him and others at the Center, as my academic advisor. Honestly: reading Rich’s book and working closely with his colleagues changed the way I understand public health, and, frankly, myself and the world around me.

John Rich has changed the way we understand urban Black men’s health. As the gospel of trauma-informed care spreads throughout public health, medicine, and public policy, I hope we will see a more compassionate view of Black men radiate throughout these institutions. We know that what we’ve been doing for these men hasn’t been working--and John Rich has shown us how to make changes that will actually help.