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Mindy Fullilove '71 to Hold the 2023 Mary Flexner Lectureship

December 7, 2022

Dr. Mindy Fullilove '71, professor of urban policy and health at the New School and a board-certified psychiatrist, will hold the Mary Flexner Lectureship at Bryn Mawr in fall 2023. She is the first alumna of the College to hold the lectureship.  

Fullilove's Flexner Lectures will lead to completion of a book tentatively titled The Tao of K-Drama: Perspectives on Moving from Displacement to Empowered Collaboration. 

Fullilove’s research on the psychology of place and the collective trauma of displacement and healing dates from the mid-1990s, when she began to study the desertification of poor and minority neighborhoods across the nation and the alienation and disorientation that followed the disruption of the bonds of place. Her Flexner Lectures emerge from her encounter with K-drama at the beginning of the pandemic, which she argues sheds distinctive light on the trauma of displacement and modes of healing.

While careful to acknowledge that she approaches this project as a social psychiatrist and not as a Korean culture or media studies scholar, Fullilove has been working with a project team of interdisciplinary scholars. She has also engaged in intensive study of the Korean language and will spend the coming semester in South Korea.


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"In 2021, during the Covid pandemic, I found myself at home and somewhat bored by the isolation. I stumbled upon K-drama—often called “soap operas” because each K-drama is composed of a set of 16 or so hour-long shows—and became fascinated by their stories. Having watched and studied several dozen K-dramas, I have become convinced that these stories, which differ in striking ways from American stories, shed light on the problem of displacement.

"It is inarguable that the Korean people have faced extraordinary upheaval. Some scholars estimate that the country has been invaded 800 times, most recently in 1910 by Japan, which colonized the country until the end of World War II, attempting to wipe out its language and culture. That tragic era was followed by the Korean War, partition, and dueling dictatorships—the capitalist dictatorship in the South and the Communist dictatorship in the North. Though the North and South have diverged in many ways, the massive upheaval has continued. The South, for example, managed to convert itself from one of the poorest countries on earth to the 13th largest economy in the world over the course of 70 years. The North has followed a different path of militarization and isolation, cutting off the flows with the world except for the occasional missile launch. Upheaval at this level of intensity is a pressure cooker for culture, aided by the conscious policy of the government in South Korea to use culture as an export and source of 'soft power,' the 'getting to know you' kind of influence that was so captivating in The King and I of my youth. 

"Despite the upheaval and the 800 invasions, the Korean people are very clear about their cultural, philosophical, linguistic and historical roots in thousands of years of history. They are able to draw on a syncretic mix of Shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity to present themselves to the world. It is this deep knowledge that one encounters in K-drama. While most viewers are bedazzled by the handsome stars, gorgeous costumes, yummy-looking food, and fabulous sets, I have been mesmerized by a belief that there was more going on than meets the eye.

"The project I’ve undertaken is an effort to discern what the underlying deeper truth might be. While I’m in the middle of this project, which involves studying the Korean language and culture, and spending the spring semester 2023 in Korea, I have arrived at some tentative hypotheses about what I’m seeing. Overall, I believe the message is: 'This is how you survive.' What the shows delineate is a passage from the disabling aftermath of upheaval to re-engagement with the making of society. While there are certainly stories in the Western canon of people who are grappling with upheaval, few go past the individual recovery to demonstrate the creation of an ensemble that can tackle a social need or problem. This gives the shows their deep optimism and perhaps even subversive tinge. The whole process is an astounding resource for a sorely troubled world."

Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D., grew up in Orange, N.J., in an activist family. Her father was a prominent civil rights activist and her mother was committed to anti-racism in all aspects of her life and work. Growing up, Fullilove was torn and upset by the tension between the belief in her parents’s work and the costs of taking on the system. Yet the kinds of extravagant emotions she experienced were out of step with the buttoned-down world in which she lived. It was a great relief to discover psychiatry, and to be given tools to make sense of that rich and painful body of lived experience. Her training in family therapy gave her a sound understanding of social systems and a deep interest in interventions at levels of scale that could help many people. Her studies of urban epidemics—what she called the “mad plagues of the 90s”—led her to social psychiatry, the study of the ways in which social systems influence people’s mental health. Her observations of the destructive effects of mad plagues on inner-city neighborhoods led to the study of cities under the tutelage of the renowned French urbanist, Michel Cantal-Dupart. 

Dr. Fullilove has brought these perspectives together to create a unique body of work. Her contributions to the scientific community include: early identification of the intersection of the crack and AIDS epidemics; documentation of the high levels of trauma among women in recovery from crack addiction and proposals to address that form of co-morbidity; the description of “root shock” in the aftermath of mass upheaval; the description of “serial forced displacement"; and the identification of nine elements of urban restoration. 

Her contributions to social interventions include: the adaptation of Uri Treisman’s PDP model to the medical school setting; the proposal to adapt the Church of Latter-Day Saints’s Family Home Evening program for Harlem and other inner-city families; the proposal of a trail to link Manhattan’s cliffside parks, the CLIMB project; the concept that Orange, N.J., was a university, an idea that led to the establishment the University of Orange; the 2016 observation that the U.S. ought to observe the 2019 anniversary of the first landing of Africans at Jamestown; and the 2022 plea for a “people’s CDC,” which led to the founding of the eponymous coalition.

Her work is the subject of feature articles, including the 2015 New York Times "The Town Shrink," and she has published more than a hundred scientific papers and eight books. Fullilove has been given numerous awards for her work, including two honorary degrees, and was elected to honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects in 2016 and Life Fellowship in the American Psychiatric Association in 2018.

Established in honor of Mary Flexner, a Bryn Mawr graduate of the class of 1895, the lectureship has brought some of the world's best-known humanists and humanistic social scientists to campus. Holders of the Mary Flexner Lectureship give a series of on-campus public talks that introduce their unique scholarship and present new chapters or developments in that work. The dates for the lectures are Nov. 2, 9, and 16, 2023. Lecturers publish their scholarship with Harvard University Press.

While in residence, lecturers often lead seminars or discussions with undergraduate and graduate students. The lectureships also provide a framework for faculty to create new courses, rethink existing courses that engage the lecturer's research, and for the entire community to develop affiliated programming. 

Fullilove is the author of more than 100 scientifitc articles and eight books: Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power (with E. Thompson), The Black Family: Mental Health Perspectives, The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About ItCollective Consciousness and Its Discontents: Institutional Distributed Cognition, Racial Policy and Public Health in the U.S. (with R. Wallace), Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy to America’s Sorted-Out Cities, From Enforcers to Guardians: A Public Health Primer on Ending Police Violence (with H.Cooper), and Main Street: How a City’s Heart Connects us All.

She received her bachelor’s degree in history from Bryn Mawr College, her M.S. and M.D. degrees from Columbia University and her certificate in landscape design from the New York Botanical Garden.