add_theme_support( 'post-thumbnails' );Interview with Convocation Speaker, Author, and Social Advocate: Tracy Kidder - BANG.
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Interview with Convocation Speaker, Author, and Social Advocate: Tracy Kidder

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder delivered Boston College's Academic Convocation address earlier this September. This annual event, held for first-year students, showcases an influential book and a speech from its author. This year, the featured book was Kidder's Rough Sleepers, which focuses on Doctor Jim O'Connell and his work on homelessness in Boston. Dr. O'Connell graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1982 and began working at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program in 1985 as the founding physician. The book follows Doctor O'Connell and his team as they treat Boston's "rough sleepers" (Dr. O'Connell's preferred term for people experiencing homelessness). I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Kidder before his BC convocation address about his career, Rough Sleepers, and the broader issue of homelessness in America.

Tracy Kidder has written several non-fiction works and won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction for his book The Soul of a New Machine, an in-depth focus on the development of a new computer in the early days of the tech industry. He also spoke at BC's inaugural 2004 Convocation about his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, alongside the book's protagonist, Doctor Paul Farmer. This book profiles Doctor Farmer and his work on global health challenges. He is often praised for his ability to blend careful research and captivating storytelling in his works, and Rough Sleepers is no exception.

Although Kidder has written about many important social issues, such as homelessness, medicine, and education, he described his creative process as being centered on a specific person. He told me, "I've never decided to write a book about a subject. It's always someone I've met who's interested me, and then I get interested [in the subject]." He further explained what led him to Rough Sleepers, saying, "I found my way to this book the way I often have through another person I've written about, and [...] I found my way to Jim." 

Kidder then further emphasized his focus on crafting a story around a person of interest. He explained: "There was a time when I thought that you could really change the drift of things through writing, politically and socially. [...] I think it's important, but I think the changes that might come from a good book aren't so obvious and oftentimes, they aren't immediate. [...] I just want to tell a good story." 

Through Rough Sleepers, Kidder depicts detailed problems of homelessness through emotional stories following Dr. O'Connell and his patients, allowing space for readers to challenge their own preconceived beliefs about "rough sleepers." Dr. O'Connell's work additionally inspires readers to engage in their own work on this social mission by starting small in specific communities. 

We then moved to discuss the problem of homelessness from a broader lens. Mr. Kidder offered his insights, saying, "The problem with facing [homelessness] from a giant perspective is that it's not one problem. It's a whole host of problems. [...] homelessness itself is a symptom of other things that are so much wider." Some of the contributing issues, specifically in Boston, include a lack of public transportation and affordable housing, causing limited access to job opportunities in other places around the city. Kidder referenced a 2015 study from Boston University, which examines the relationship between public transportation access and health disparities in the city of Boston, using a map of MBTA stops. This study draws attention to the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities in urban areas, mapping out the disparities in health outcomes (including death, homicide, and poverty rates) among neighborhoods located near different T-stops.

Since he spent years following Dr. O'Connell's impactful work, I asked him how he would advise BC students to help these "rough sleepers," instead of shying away from the problem to avoid discomfort. He said, "The first thing is just to recognize that these are human beings as well. So there are some people that are really crazy, and some of them are probably dangerous, but most of them definitely are not. And I think if you have your wits about you, you'll know the difference." This advice can be difficult to apply in real-life situations, but by being more conscious about the internalized stereotypes we hold, we can humanize this extremely vulnerable population.

Kidder further mused, "I think we get hung up on what people deserve or don't deserve." He talked about people experiencing homelessness' feelings of shame and purposelessness and how empathetically remembering our similarities as humans is so important. There are many stereotypes about this at-risk population, but focusing on a specific person and situation is crucial to help instead of placing blame on a general group.

Finally, circling back to the content of Rough Sleepers, Kidder reiterated the importance of examining the issue of homelessness from many angles. He said, "I think what Jim and his colleagues over the years invented was a really effective healthcare system for homeless people, and the regular healthcare system could learn a lot from it seems to me. But it's only a part of any solution." Homelessness is a deeply complicated issue, intersecting with problems of housing, health, and addiction. However, one person's focused work can make a difference on an individual level, like Doctor O'Connell's tireless work in Boston.