Western Mass Health Equity Summit Remarks 2018

Western Mass Health Equity Summit Remarks 2018

Western Mass. Health Equity Summit Remarks | UMass Amherst
September 14, 2018

I was recently invited to speak at the Western Mass Health Equity Summit closing plenary session to share the public health work of Multicultural BRIDGE, its strategies and recent successes. Along with my fellow panelists Danielle Winters of Arise for Social Justice, an organizer for environmental justice, and Pablo Ruiz of Raise Up Massachusetts, an organizer of millions of members of unions to raise our minimum wage, I was asked to speak on new ideas implemented to move health equity forward. Here are my remarks.

Currently I serve as Co-founding Director and CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE and the Equity and Inclusion Lead at both BRIDGE and Imagine Philanthropy on projects covering community development grants, arts and social justice initiatives, gender parity in politics, and mobilizing athletes as allies with an equity lens for LGBTQ rights and solidarity with other social justice issues. I, also working with an equity lens, serve as an appointed state official on the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women to amplify the voice of Berkshire women and girls, I begin with sharing the BRIDGE founding story, which requires me reflecting back over a decade.

Just about 10 years ago, I was living in the Berkshire community as an African American professional woman and working as a freelance educator, translator, and medical/mental health interpreter trained by Berkshire AHEC (Berkshire Area Health Education). I realized that we needed an organization that could bridge the gaps in service and understanding for underrepresented and/or underserved minority groups. We developed a mission as Multicultural BRIDGE and 360 degree strategy to address issues impacting youth, women, immigrants, workplaces, justice systems, and educational institutions while centering the experiences and perspectives of African Americans and other underrepresented groups as well as women. We also realized that we needed to develop the capacity not only to bridge linguistic and cultural barriers but also to dismantle the impact of systemic issues such as racism and generational poverty.

As an organization and throughout our training and education programs, we implemented a privilege and power analysis. Early on in our organizational development—with the grant, technical assistance, and networking of Haymarket Peoples Fund and the mentorship of Donna Bivens of Community Change—we adopted a systemic analysis of race to unpack individual, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional barriers for underrepresented communities.

This quote by Grace Lee Boggs sums it up:

“We committed ourselves to transformational organizing, which does not mainly denounce and protest oppression or mobilize Americans to struggle for more material things, but challenges us as Americans to evolve or transform ourselves into more human human beings.”

To work toward equity and justice, we have to be in relationship with ourselves first (knowing our personal values, goals, and aspirations) and pursue knowledge from those communities we see ourselves advocating for or identify with as members. Interpersonally, we have to work first and foremost on relationship: communication, working with, and sharing space of all kinds (labor, emotional, psychological, mental, and vision/aspiration). And at the institutional level, we must find our points of intersection, learn how to be in better relationship at those intersections, and have the courage to confront the systemic policies that perpetuate the oppression of people of color, families that suffer from generational poverty, and women. We must pause and rethink our strategy when we realize our vision, goals, and/or plans may be upholding the very systems we aim to eradicate.

Along these lines, BRIDGE employs an approach to equity and inclusion work that is rooted in cultural humility (like you all practiced this morning) and this systemic analysis on the intersections of race, gender, and class.

Through highly interactive workshops, we focus on the identity of individuals and the footprint of the institution and their social contexts as well as perceptions and impact. We begin by breaking down cultural competence in to five buckets:

  • Institutional Knowledge: We use shared language around diversity and culture, and employ a poverty and privilege analysis. We aim to understand internal resources and demographics and those of the institution and surrounding area.

  • Valuing Diversity: We unpack individual lenses/world views and concepts around frameworks of tolerance, equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility to formulate a shared practice and approach plus a power and privilege analysis.

  • Self-assessment: We develop a capacity to recognize bias, self-reflect, and analyze interactions on individual, organizational, programmatic levels.

  • Navigating difference: We explore tools and practices through applied learning in hands-on experiential small group work, role play, etc.

  • Adapt to Context: We develop an understanding of how to set/reset a culture of exploration, awareness, and competency working towards proficiency. We identify actual next steps while examining policy and procedure).

Our cultural humility approach works because we start at home, developing self-awareness and then empathy and only then do we begin to focus on developing tools and lenses to support integrating “the other.” Our highly trained and experienced staff have the organizational capacity to respond to and be accountable for areas of cultural deficiency in order to address those areas.

We are not trying to change political views or simplify human interaction and identity development, but rather value each individual on a professional and oftentimes personal journey. We aim to improve cross-cultural interactions, priorities, and approaches. We have been successful in educational institutions K-12, colleges, and universities largely due to this approach. We are also successful with medical professionals, law enforcement, public safety, municipal leaders, and corporations. Once this cultural competency foundation is built, we support leadership and organizational change by coaching leaders and uplifting this work alongside strategic planning and prioritization work. In this way, we integrate equity and justice work in to the fabric of the institution and its programs and help organizations work towards culturally-proficient practices and policies.

In our coalition work, we collaborate across sectors and stay vigilant with regard to racial disparities through our Race Task Force and related groups. We focus on improving the health status in our community. While our role has shifted over the years, we partner with BOAPC (Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative). Initially, we supported integrating the conversation into our work in training and community education and dialogue to support reducing stereotypes and stigma. Then we moved to supporting families through positive education, diversity leadership, and mentoring programs in schools where children and youth were disproportionately impacted by the local opiate crisis. And now we are providing our cultural competence training within the network.

Similarly, we partner with our Rural Health Alliance of Southern Berkshire and the Community Health Coalition on underage drinking. We have supported integrating the voices of immigrant and Black communities in the work through engagement, participation, and programming. We steward our own Trust Policy partnership, which is rooted in the national Sanctuary City work and tailor it to our Western Mass., specifically Berkshire, context. In this work, we aim to respond to and encompass the experiences of other isolated communities like transgender youth, folks with disabilities, or folks with mental health issues. We have been successful in passing this policy on city and town levels in our County.

We have joined the national “Not in Our Town” campaign with a “Not in Our County” campaign to stop hate and create a culture of positive bystanders from delegates and community leaders, workplaces, and schools. This is done in collaboration with The Department of Justice, the US Attorney office, and several community groups from NAACP to Indivisible groups and municipalities. Over the years outcomes have included a local civil rights conference, reactivation of our local NAACP chapter, collaborative events to educate community on how to navigate the justice system and help people know their rights, and most recently, a DA candidate forum co-hosted by Hevreh and Berkshire Interfaith Organizing focusing on specific racial disparities impacting our Berkshire Justice System (and how they will be tracked and measured and remedied).

The work we hold reflects the complexity involved in coalition work and specifically rooted in place- the cultural context of our work; it takes incredible resource in relationship-building plus intentionality to mind the impact of our work and planning as well as its original intention. It is important that community work does not extract resources from neighborhoods or other leaders or organizing but rather support, amplify and uplift.

Additionally, we partner with our creative economy in the Berkshires to provide opportunities for learning through a less direct avenue. Through intentional theatre groups, actors and artists, we find additional avenues to touch hearts and minds across socioeconomic sectors and speak truth to multiple perspectives simultaneously. So far we have put on plays such as Facing Our Truth or Melissa’s Choice, works that tackle race and/or a women’s right to choose, white privilege, and violence against Black men.

We believe in supporting reparations and healing work and partner on community efforts to honor and support the legacies of civil rights leaders locally, most recently W. E. B. Du Bois. We create restorative spaces for African Americans and others who suffer from the social trauma of oppressive policies and history. We consistently provide spaces for deeper education and understanding on a historical proficiency level as well as on an individual and community level. We want folks to know the history, live in the present, and imagine a liberated future. We also host an annual Race Amity Day retreat and a 12 hour Racial Justice course several times a year.

BRIDGE is a community-based organization that focuses on accountability and civic engagement. We integrate underheard and/or underrepresented voices in our leadership and actions at all levels of our work. We integrate the volunteer time of allies and accomplices to share in the labor and practice owning the responsibility, engagement and intentionality for what it takes to build thriving communities through our work. These volunteers work, learn and grow alongside the trained professionals who provide direct training, coaching and consulting. Given our rural context, BRIDGE filled a gap a decade back. We have been a “one-stop shop” that has built community and closed gaps for the underserved while being a resource to organizations that are not yet able to adequately serve in a culturally relevant and accessible manner. Our mission covers all sectors. In a decade, the Berkshires has experienced an increase in minority leadership and networks. We continue to evolve and shift alongside community needs.

I was honored to share our Berkshire rural organizing agenda at the Equity Summit earlier this year in Chicago, and I end with reading the Equity Manifesto created by PolicyLink organizers as a roadmap for us all:

The Equity Manifesto

It begins by joining together, believing in the potency of inclusion, and building from a common bond.

It embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.

It recognizes local leaders as national leaders, nurturing the wisdom and creativity within every community as essential to solving the nation’s problems.

It demands honesty and forthrightness, calling out racism and oppression, both overt and systemic.

It strives for the power to realize our goals while summoning the grace to sustain them.

It requires that we understand the past, without being trapped in it; embrace the present, without being constrained by it; and look to the future, guided by the hopes and courage of those who have fought before and beside us.

This is equity: just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.

A note from Gwendolyn: I want to thank Risa Silverman for organizing this conference and Jennifer Kimball, my Berkshire Partner, in BOAPC work for recognizing BRIDGE as a public health model.
When asked about the challenges of this work—I discussed how the work required a response beyond the emotional inspiration from our training or terror over the political activities of our current government. We need to scaffold change intentionally in order to not cause more harm on, say, the new diverse recruits or promotions in a workplace.

As both Pablo and Danielle pointed out, what is most important is to create relationships and sustain them. Then our network is strong and ready for action. Pablo said our relationships need to be transformative not transactional, as the Boggs quote above implies. Danielle talk about working alongside marginalized groups, echoing the sentiment of bringing the underserved to the center of the work—leading, organizing, and activating while working alongside and then falling back to follow new leadership towards new liberated structures.

Another thing we must do is encourage those folks who can write a check to lean in to the actual on the ground work in relationships and in community and work with those community members who perhaps don't have a check to write, but who lean in to their value and power in the work of catalyzing change every day! We will shift resources to the highest need in order to amplify voices of the underheard and see more minority and women leaders who are well-resourced and supported throughout decision-making groups. Our students will have equitable school experiences, and our communities will have equitable access to alternatives to prescription meds for youth, elderly, those with chronic pain, or even an acute treatment of illness.

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