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.
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.