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My Year of Waking Up – Series: Part 5 of 5

My Year of Waking Up:  “Have Hope”

The final piece in this reflective series on my recent learning about individual and institutional racism, about the difference between equality and equity, and about myself, is dedicated to hope. As I mentioned at the start of this series, Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” urged us to do four things in our desire and effort to build a just and equitable world for all, the last of which was to have hope. 

During Stevenson’s post-election visit to Seattle, you can imagine that many in the audience were feeling uncertain and unhopeful. The white supremacy, violence and hate we have witnessed over this past year have further challenged our sense of hope. Bryan Stevenson strongly suggested that hopelessness is not an option. He said it is critical that we must always have hope and believe that together, we can create the world we want to live in. He went even further to say that “when you become hopeless, you become part of the problem, as hopelessness is the enemy of justice”. We must have hope.

So, how do I feel hopeful, especially as I wake up a little more each day to the gross injustice and inequality, experienced by my neighbors, co-workers and friends? Most of all, I stay hopeful through the increasing number of people I witness seeking to learn more, to listen for understanding, and to venture slowly into uncomfortable – dialogue changing – conversation.

In December I had the opportunity to participate in a two day training called “Undoing Institutional Racism”, hosted by the People’s Institute Northwest. The training was overbooked. So, 55 or more of us sat shoulder to shoulder in a chilly church social hall for two full days of learning that exposed the deep history of racism in our country, built on white privilege and supremacy. We were engaged in different ways to explore our individual and collective understanding of race based oppression and inequity.

In one exercise, we were each asked to state our primary race identification (Black, White, Asian, Native American, Hispanic), and to say what we liked most about “being White, or Black…”. I struggled to think of what to say, because I had never thought about being White, and when it was my turn to answer to the group, I said “I’m not sure, maybe because it’s easy…?” My response of ease, along with “I’ve never thought about it”, were the most common response from White participants.

Clearly, it’s a privilege not to consider your race when walking through life — when applying for a job, traveling to different parts of the country, shopping, looking for a new place to live, driving over the speed limit or walking home in the dark. Interestingly, most non-white participants reported that they “liked” being strong, facing adversity, being resilient, they also reported being very proud of their cultural traditions, cuisine and creative abilities. In essence, people of color report that what they like about themselves is that they are capable of coping with adversity and oppression. This simple, learning-in-public exercise was hard, and revealing, and I think it left each of us a little more awake, it certainly did me. It felt hopeful to see this large group of people show up and actively participate in two days of powerful, albeit uncomfortable awakening. 

Day to day, I find the most hope close to home, at WithinReach. I work with people who are committed to health equity, to equity in general. As a team we want to understand why such significant inequities exist for Washington communities of color, and what our role is in creating more equitable health outcomes for all families in our state. The top priority in our 2017-2019 Strategic Framework is dedicated to: Improving overall health and health equity in Washington. We don’t know the perfect path forward in pursuit of this goal, but we are committed to reducing our individual and organizational bias, and to creating a plan to move every part of our work toward equity. Most of all, we are listening more deeply in our effort to create a different dialogue.

So, where does this leave me? Above all, grateful for each of the learning experiences I had this past year and the awakenings they offered me. I cannot say I am fully woke, but rather ready to keep ‘waking up’. Bias, racism and inequity are not new, but the need to understand and address them is more critical than ever to our survival. Black Lives Matter. Hate has No Home Here. And, I hope to be more awake each day. 

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Tags: Bryan Stevenson   CEO Perspective   Have Hope   institutional racism   Just Mercy   Kay Knox   white privilege   

My Year of Waking Up – Series: Part 2 of 5

PART 2: “Getting Proximate”

Pictured from right to left: Dr. Ben Danielson, Alex Sosa, Patty Hayes, Kay Knox 

As I described in the introduction to this series, this has been a year of deep learning for me — about racism, bias, inequity, and myself.  The chance to hear Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, contributed hugely to my learning, as have a number of other experiences I had this past year. One such experience was when I attended a Forum facilitated by our WithinReach Breastfeeding team and members of the Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington.

With generous funding from the Pacific Hospital Preservation District Association, the Forum gathered about 100 cross-sector community partners to explore Breastfeeding Disparities in African American Moms in King County.  I am embarrassed (and uncomfortable) to say that I attended this meeting primarily to show my support as CEO of WithinReach, not because I thought the learning was intended for me. I was wrong. 

Dr. Ben Danielson, Medical Director at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central District, was one the speakers at the forum. He shared loads of research-based data that described how health and social service systems routinely treat African American women differently. Whether it is that they are significantly less likely to be provided information about breastfeeding by hospital staff after giving birth – to support them in giving their babies the best, and healthiest first food; or, that African American Moms are often judged as being single, less capable parents with absent fathers if they show up to a clinic appointment alone (research shows that African American dads are equally involved in their children’s lives).

The Breastfeeding Forum was an opportunity for me to get ‘proximate’, as Bryan Stevenson suggested we must all do to build a just and equitable world for all.  Stevenson encouraged all of us to start by getting close to those who are broken, those you are oppressed, those who suffer inequity daily, so that we can serve as witnesses to racism, both individual and institutional, in a real way.

Each time Dr. Danielson provided another data point illustrating structural racism in our health and social service systems, the African American women in the room emphatically responded with strong acknowledgement of this lived experience, “Amen, yes, Amen”.  What an eye opening experience, to take step closer to being a witness.  It was humbling in that moment to realize that the learning was all mine.

I have struggled over the years to figure out what my role and the role of our organization should be in reducing health disparities. And on this day, the message was clear: We cannot expect those oppressed by institutional racism to change the systems that oppress them. It is up to me, a white leader, and it is up to WithinReach to help change these systems.  

First, we must get close, and serve as witnesses.


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Tags: Bryan Stevenson   CEO   CEO Perspective   Health Equity   Just Mercy   Kay Knox   privilege   systemic oppression   

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