My Year of Waking Up – Series: Part 4 of 5
My Year of Waking Up: “Change the narrative by listening deeply to others”
My past ‘year of waking up’ was not only enhanced by Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and my gym pal and local high school teacher, Eddie Stead as I described in the introduction to this series but by many others I was fortunate to meet throughout 2017. Each person has granted me the gift of awareness, courage and hope. They’ve helped me examine my own privilege and be more aware of the racism that affects the daily lives of so many in our country. I’ve been encouraged by Bryan Stevenson’s third charge to us, “change the narrative by listening deeply to others”, because it has the potential to transform how I approach just about everything.
A few months back, I had a candid conversation with King County Councilman, Larry Gossett, and his Legislative Aide, Larry Evans. Though our conversation was about WithinReach’s key role in helping develop a coordinated Help Me Grow network as part of King County’s innovative Best Starts for Kids Initiative, it quickly it veered toward health equity. After describing the work of WithinReach, Larry Evans asked me to consider a parenting scenario he had recently witnessed between an African American Mom and her young toddler. In the scenario, a young Mom interacted with her toddler in what might have been seen as too harsh, and included a tough warning to her daughter about potential consequences of her behavior.
Larry offered me a huge gift, he asked me to wait until he was completely done, before I responded. In the end, he asked me how I would have interpreted the scenario, and how my organization would have approached this family. With this, he opened the door for me to explore my bias based on my own upbringing and experience as a parent, instead of feeling defensive and jumping in with what I thought was right answer, “Oh, we would treat her like any other Mom…our organization really cares about diversity and equity …we’re not biased”.
We talked openly about the filters I apply to the world based on my white privilege, and the assumptions, I might have made about this Mom and her children. We talked about institutional racism and how it keeps families in need from being served, or even seeking help; and we talked about how WithinReach is truly committed to the health of all families and yet, we are only beginning to understand what health equity means, and how we can play a role in making it a reality.
Larry Evans’ gift – inviting me to pause before responding – offered me the opportunity to listen deeply. As most people who know me will agree, this isn’t my strong suit, I am always ready to respond, and most often do. At the end of our time together, we all agreed that Bryan Stevenson is right, listening for understanding is key to creating a different dialogue; and the only way we can do that is to extend open, non-judgmental invitations for important conversations to happen.
My Year of Waking Up – Series: Part 3 of 5
My Year of Waking Up: “Do things that are uncomfortable”
Photo: Thank you to Dr. Victoria Gardner for facilitating our All Staff Retreat (pictured in the center, in red, with our Intercultural Competency Committee members and myself)!
I started this series by saying that 2017 was a big year of learning for me about individual and institutional racism, about the difference between equality and equity, and about myself as a white person of privilege. After hearing Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, I have been focused on the 4 things he encouraged us to do. The second of which was to “do things that make us uncomfortable”. Thanks to our staff Intercultural Competency Committee I had the opportunity to jump right in to my own discomfort, through a wonderful all-staff learning event.
The Committee hosted our annual learning retreat, which has been happening for more than 10 years. The retreat provides a chance for us to step away from our daily work and dive into shared learning about how we can realize our strategic priorities, improve our program and services, or enhance our individual growth. In preparation for this year’s retreat, we were encouraged to take one or more of the Implicit Bias tests, through Harvard’s Project Implicit. As I began answering the questions, I felt calm and confident that my non-biased view of the world would be obvious in my survey answers. It was not. As you might guess, the result showed that I have an ‘implicit preference for Northern Europeans’ – white people. Despite my initial disbelief and shame, I woke up a little more, as I realized that implicit bias is a part of my very being – it is in my cells, by genes, my history – it is inextricably tied to my lived experience. It creates the gap between what I believe and how I act – consciously or unconsciously. It informs my thoughts, words and actions whether I like it or not. This doesn’t mean that I just accept this fact, but instead use this awareness to listen more deeply to those who are affected by my bias and the bias of others.
Though our retreat focused on the results of our first organization-wide Cultural Responsiveness Assessment (as part of Portland State University’s Protocol for Culturally Responsive Organizations), this exercise provided an opportunity for each of us to open the day’s learning a little more aware of how our implicit bias affects how we show up every day.
Bryan Stevenson encouraged us to do things that are uncomfortable – to have uncomfortable conversations. My implicit bias learning has made me more open to having different and perhaps uncomfortable conversations. I have begun to refer to myself as a “white leader” in conversations, to challenge myself and others to recognize the implicit bias I/we bring to our work. Our Board is having brave conversations about what it will take to add diversity to our Board, given that we are largely a white group, with mostly white networks. They are committed to prioritizing diversity and moving beyond our traditional circles to recruit a more diverse Board.
Most of all, we are all getting more comfortable being uncomfortable.
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.
My Year of Waking Up – Series: Part 1 of 5
PART 1: New Friends, New Learning
Pictured right, Eddie Snead (L) and Kay Knox (R)
Over the last year, I have experienced deep learning about racism, bias, inequity, and myself. I have learned that even though I can authentically say that I believe all people are created equal, and deserve equal protections under the law and an equal opportunity to thrive, my privilege and cultural and historical experiences, as a white woman, make it impossible for me to act in absolute alignment with these beliefs.
I recognize that this realization may be uncomfortable to read. That’s ok, it makes me uncomfortable. In fact, it used to make me feel embarrassed and a bit defensive, but not anymore, because I am starting to wake up.
Over the last year, I have come to realize that this discomfort is key to creating the world I want to live in, but don’t. Not in a blaming, judgmental way, but in a learning, deep listening, and hope-filled way.
I’d like to share my learning with you, as an invitation for conversation, exploration, and possibly a path to change the world, even just a little.
It all started at the gym, when I met Eddie Snead, a high school teacher, who became a Facebook friend and a periodic recumbent cycling pal. Eddie is one of the most positive people I have ever met. He is also a consummate teacher – always urging students, friends, and family to expand their minds by reading more. Eddie urged me to read Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, to help me understand the deep impact of structural racism. I felt sick and overwhelmed by the horrific stories of oppression and institutional racism in Just Mercy, but I also felt invited to search for hope, always, by both Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and my new friend, Eddie. I had been one of the people who wondered why not “All Lives Matter”? After reading Just Mercy, I finally got it. Sure, all lives matter, but not all lives experience individual and institutional racism every day. Black Lives Matter is about this prevalent systemic oppression and injustice. It is a necessary message, a necessary movement, aimed at helping all of us wake up more.
My awakening continued when I had the incredible honor of hearing Bryan Stevenson speak in-person at Benaroya Hall. His visit to Seattle came a few weeks after the election, and I will admit, I needed his insight and guidance more than ever. He suggested that to build a just and equitable world for all, we must concentrate on doing the following four things:
1. Get proximate to be a witness. He challenged us to get close to those who are broken, those who are oppressed, those who suffer inequity daily, so that we can serve as witnesses to racism, both individual and institutional, in a real way.
2. Do things that are uncomfortable. Be willing to get close and listen deeply to those who struggle against systems that are created by our dominant culture. He suggested we must be brave and take risks, we must be willing to get uncomfortable to move to a different place.
3. Change the narrative by listening deeply to others. We must stop assuming we understand the challenges our neighbors face, we must stop talking, put our defenses down, and listen deeply to truly understand how people are affected by racism and injustice.
4. Have Hope. Knowing that many in the audience were likely feeling unhopeful at the time, he strongly suggested that this was not an option. Believing, that together, we can create the world we want to live in is critical. He did not mince words, saying: “when you become hopeless, you become part of the problem, as hopelessness is the enemy of justice”. We must have hope.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to reflect on each of these actions – and how they have contributed to my year of waking up. I hope you will follow me in this exploration, even if it is uncomfortable, because I think the world we want to live in depends on it.
Building Communities that are Inclusive, Healthy & Safe
When we devote our life’s work to the betterment of our communities, our society, and the world – it is incredibly difficult to witness the hate, pain and injustice of recent events – for it goes against everything we believe in.
After engaging in powerful conversations as a staff these past couple weeks, and processing together our sadness and despair over what occurred in Charlottesville on August 12th, we feel compelled to speak out, as individuals and as an agency.
We condemn the white supremacy, violence, and racist actions we witnessed in Charlottesville, and the prevalent hate that so many people in our country are facing every day. We feel obliged to turn quickly and clearly toward justice and inclusion, and to take positive steps toward equity each day.
As a result, we dedicated the top priority in our 2017-2019 Strategic Framework to Improving Overall Health and Health Equity in Washington State. We are committed to creating a plan to increase equity in all parts of our work. To start, we have identified ways to reduce our individual and organizational bias through inter-cultural competency trainings, self-reflection, and group discussion. Through this hard work, it has become clear to us that we cannot strive for health equity without acknowledging that implicit bias and racism are intrinsically tied to the health inequities experienced by our clients and the communities we serve on a daily basis.
We know undeniably that we don’t have all the answers or solutions, but we are certain that we must band together for peace, equity, and justice because together we are stronger than the hate around us. Together we can ensure that every family has an equitable opportunity to thrive.
We welcome your help in building communities that are inclusive, healthy and safe. To learn more about Implicit Bias visit the Perception Institute, or about Implicit Bias in Healthcare, consider reading this series by Dustyn Addington, at the Foundation for Healthy Generations.
Back to school…every day!
Leadership legacy is a gift. I started my new role with the recognition that I was stepping into it on the heels of amazing leaders – the women who envisioned, started, and grew WithinReach. Over the last year, I have channeled them often, AND I have learned from each and every member of our Board, all of whom have become teachers and guides for me. For 27 years, WithinReach has been blessed with the strength of smart, committed leaders. This history of strong leadership provides the vision, strategy, and stability we need to serve more families each year.
Trust is key. Over the last year, I have learned that the key to our success is trust. Do the families we serve every day trust that we will make the connections they need to live healthy lives? Do our donors trust that we will help them fulfill their vision for a healthier Washington? Do staff trust that their supervisors will help them do their best and more? Does the Board trust me to build on the successes of the past? I believe the answer is yes, because we are an organization that values integrity, quality, and compassion – all important pieces to building trust.
Plans are only as a good as they are nimble. As we continue to work our 3-year strategic plan, it is clear that our plans must bend and sway to match our ever-changing world. Our vision is a constant: everything we do is aimed at ensuring that all families have quality health care and adequate nutritious food to eat. And yet, when a measles outbreak hits like it did this year, we must be ready to respond – to redouble our efforts to ensure that every child in Washington is protected from vaccine-preventable diseases. It is our nimble, innovative, dynamic nature that makes us a true agent for change.
The CEO role is exciting and exhausting. It goes without saying that the CEO role is a big one, and my days are busier than ever before. They are busy because the opportunities to improve the health of all families in our state are beyond measure, and because the staff at WithinReach stand ready to examine, develop and implement each opportunity. Our smart, caring, and committed staff push themselves harder every day to make the connections WA families need to be healthy. I can only follow their lead.
One thing I know for sure… if my second year as CEO is anything like my first, I will learn new things each day. So, here’s to going back to school…every day!