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Stories Beyond the Statistics from the American South

Claire Bunn

By Claire Bunn

Understanding and Responding to Community Needs with Dr. John J. Green

As I begin to deepen my own understanding of public health, I have looked to the socio-ecological model. To explore how individuals in a community mobilize and come together for better health outcomes, I continued my conversation with Dr. John J. Green, a rural sociologist who has focused his attention on the health and wellbeing challenges faced by people living in rural and urban communities in the South. I hope you find wisdom in his words to take back to your own community. 

A graphic showing the socio-ecological model of public health.
Figure 1. The socio-ecological model requires an understanding of an individual’s positionality and health behaviors, the complex personal relationships that influence an individual, the communities in which individuals reside, and the broader societal factors underlying health.

Claire: You’ve done a lot of work on rural communities and aging. How do the changing dynamics in these communities affect how you prepare for and respond to challenges? And why is the life-course approach in public health important? 

Dr. Green: It is so critical to keep an eye on the changes in a community in a lot of ways, including demographically. What I give a lot of attention to, especially when you look at many of the Delta communities where I’ve worked, is, they still have a fairly high proportion of people who are young, high birth rates, and children in the community, and a kind of increasing representation of older people because they’ve had this out-migration of young adults.

 

How do we meet the needs of the younger population and the older population? My argument would be that if we think about communities and the types of things we invest in, what types of things we prioritize, with that idea of thinking across the lifecourse — what does our community need, what does our state need to be attractive, to be high-quality for people across the life-course? I would argue that if we think about the needs of younger and older generations within a community, that’s a pretty good place to live. We can’t get sucked into thinking about just one segment.

Claire: When you talk about meeting these needs within the community, can you talk a little bit about building community capacity for resilience concerning health, and what that process actually looks like?

Dr. Green: First of all, it requires people to communicate about these issues. Another piece is that we have to have people from diverse positions within the community and diverse backgrounds. They have to have research and data, but also, their own experiences are part of the conversation.

 

What I’ve found is kind of interesting; I’ve worked in environments where there’s been a history of a lot of conflict around community issues. But when you can facilitate a conversation about the community, to a large extent, people want pretty similar things.

 

That doesn’t mean there’s no difference: what they prioritize or who they think is responsible — should it be private business, should it be the government, should it be individuals, should it be the collective, should it be the church? Those are things that we can have a healthy debate over, but to a large extent, if you do a good job coming together and saying “how are we going to pursue this, how are we going to discuss this, how are we going to identify solutions together?”, there’s a lot of commonality. And I think finding that is critical to this question of resilience.

Claire: As an academic researcher but also as a resident who’s called these places home for a while, what do you think are some misconceptions about the Mississippi Delta or the South and things that people would be surprised to learn?

Dr. Green: There’s a lot more diversity in these places than I think people from the outside understand.

 

That’s a challenge and an opportunity. One of the things we can say is “Hey come learn from us! We’re this rich, diverse place,” as well as within really special, unique places in terms of cultural traditions that are so varied across the region.

 

The other thing is, a community that has faced racial struggles and inequality can also create really amazing, innovative solutions that everybody else can learn from.

 

Oftentimes, people try to explain it away, “Well, that was that one special individual, it’s not representative of these communities.” And I simply don’t think that’s the case. Doing community work across the Delta region, I’ve met dozens and dozens of these folks. Clearly, it’s not just one special individual. It’s communities that are helping to create this and helping to nurture it.

 

And I think that’s really critical to change the narrative. Because once we do change that narrative, then we can think about all the possibilities, all the things that can be done. I think those two things are misconceptions.

A map of the Mississippi Delta
The Mississippi Delta region where Dr. Green has focused much of his work. (By Philg88 - US Geographical Survey Data hereUnited States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) map here, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Claire: As a resident of Mississippi, what’s your favorite part of it? What do you appreciate about living there and being a part of that community? 

Dr. Green: It’s two-fold. One is more the physical landscape of being in rural areas. I think rural places are beautiful places, and they’re unique in their different ways.

 

The other thing is social relationships. Being in a rural place, you have the opportunity to develop close relationships within the community because it’s a smaller number of people in your everyday activities. It gives you a chance, it gives you the time, it gives you the ability to interact and have good relationships that I think is wonderful. That’s what I strive to do. Not all rural sociologists live in rural areas, but to me, that’s the dream: rural or small town life.

 

I think even people who don’t live there can really benefit. In the same way, I like to go visit large cities or go see my friends who live in larger cities, so it’s not that one or the other is more pleasing or better types of relationships, but it’s different. And different for reasons that are really important for the human experience.

About Dr. John J. Green

Dr. John Green
Dr. John J. Green (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Kevin Hudson)

Dr. Green is from central Illinois but moved to Mississippi with his wife in his early twenties and has since called it home. He received his BA in Political Science and MS in Sociology from Mississippi State University followed by his PhD in Rural Sociology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He was a faculty member at Delta State University for nine years working with both the Division of Social Sciences and History and the Center for Community and Economic Development. He served as Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi for ten years. He currently serves as the Director of the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University.

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