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.
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.
From inquiry to impact to action: The Inequity in Breastfeeding Support Summit
Inquiry: What is inequity in breastfeeding support and why does it matter?
Breastfeeding is a cornerstone of public health. Mothers know breastfeeding is important, yet the care and support provided to all women is not the same (like educational opportunities or job access), setting some mothers up for success and creating barriers for others. In short, white women tend to experience a more supportive mainstream healthcare system, with greater breastfeeding resources made available to them, than women of color. This inequity in support leads to long-term disparities in care and health. Breastfeeding significantly predicts health outcomes for mothers and babies for things like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, asthma and more- all things experienced disproportionately by people of color. This is a huge gap in care, and entities ranging from community grassroots organizations up to the Surgeon General are increasingly acknowledging and working to address this.
While disparities in breastfeeding rates are often cited by medical organizations and in the media, rarely do we discuss the root causes of these differential health outcomes born by women and their families. Dr. James Collins and colleagues have shown the impact of racism on maternal child health outcomes, specifically low-birth weight and pre-term babies in the African American community. Institutional racism and white privilege impact the breastfeeding care that women and their babies receive as well. Institutional racism is a term first coined by Stokely Carmichael to refer to the “collective failure of an organization or system to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin.” Solid Ground, one of WithinReach’s community partners, defines institutional racism as:
The systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our
society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people
of color. Present-day racism was built on a long history of racially distributed
resources and ideas that shape our view of ourselves and others. It is a
hierarchical system that comes with a broad range of policies and institutions
that keep it in place.
White privilege refers to the [perhaps unspoken or unacknowledged] privileges that white people have in a racist society that affords more value to white people than people of color- it is the flip side of racism. While we often hear about ‘underserved’, ‘underprivileged’ or ‘disadvantaged’ communities, the flipside is rarely acknowledged: that other communities (namely white, middle and upper class) are over-served, over-privileged and over-advantaged.
Impact: The 2013 Inequity in Breastfeeding Support Summit
In 2012, community breastfeeding activists, including representatives from the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, Mahogany Moms Breastfeeding Coalition and WithinReach’s Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, got together in an effort to address the institutional barriers faced by women of color seeking breastfeeding support. Out of these conversations, the Inequity in Breastfeeding Support Summit was born. The purpose of this Summit was threefold: to collaborate, educate and act together as a community of breastfeeding supporters to counter institutional racism in support services for new families, that are significantly centered on the needs and experiences of white women. Our long-term aims as a result of this Summit are to increase the cultural competence of breastfeeding supporters, increase the proportion of breastfeeding counselors who are women of color, and increase the organizations that provide culturally relevant breastfeeding support to women of color.
Cynthia Good-Mojab, a Summit planning committee member and speaker, acknowledged that “this Summit has been a yearlong, collaborative labor of love. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Long before and concurrent with our efforts to create this Summit, others have made far more significant contributions to the ongoing movement to dismantle racism and other forms of oppression.”
On June 21-22, over 200 people came together from across Washington State and the country- mothers and babies, community members, breastfeeding peer counselors, public health professionals, health care providers and more. The day started out with a blessing from Emma Medicine White Crow honoring the Duwamish people for their land that the city of Seattle and the Summit were held on. Day one was focused on what systemic racism looks like and how it impacts families. Leaders in maternal child health such as Dr. Maxine Hayes, Kathi Barber and Sheila Capestany, laid the historical groundwork for disparities in breastfeeding rates and the access to breastfeeding support that mothers have. Kathi Barber led us through a history of the African American experience starting with women’s treatment during slavery, how many women were removed from their children and unable to nurse them and bringing us to present day, showing how this collective history has contributed to where our society is today with regard to breastfeeding.
Day two was focused on solutions that prioritize supporting moms and babies of color. Six breakout sessions focused on topics ranging from grassroots community breastfeeding support programs to heterosexist language in breastfeeding support to the role of social media in creating ally communities. A three-hour action planning session got participants discussing solutions and the role they can play in ensuring all mothers and babies are receiving quality care. The end result: the synopsis of dozens and dozens of voices answering one question: What key actions can we take to advance racial equity in breastfeeding support at the individual, family, community and societal level? The two days ended with each participant, speaker and planning committee member saying just one word about how they were feeling or what they were left with. Comments ranged from uplifted, humbled and doubtful to motivated, skeptical and inspired. The Summit likely didn’t meet the needs of all participants, but it did build upon the groundswell of work happening around the country to name and address institutional factors that create unequal care for mothers and children. To read one student midwife’s reflection of her experience at the Summit, visit Robin Gray-Reed’s post from her blog The Mindful [Student] Midwife.
Action: Next steps in moving forward
This Summer, WithinReach intern Rebecca Allen and the Summit planning committee will drive the development of a Community Action Report. We hope this document will serve as a blueprint of steps to take for all communities interested to work in achieving equity in breastfeeding support and maternal child health outcomes. To learn more or get involved visit the Inequity in Breastfeeding Support Summit Facebook page.