Connecting the Dots: Health Equity and Justice in the Berkshires

Connecting the Dots: Health Equity and Justice in the Berkshires

This piece is adapted from full remarks prepared for the Western Mass Health Equity Summit.

I was recently invited to speak at the Western Mass Health Equity Summit closing plenary session. With my fellow panelists Danielle Winters (Arise for Social Justice) and Pablo Ruiz (Raise Up Massachusetts), I was asked to speak on new ideas implemented to move health equity forward.

The issue of health equity really is where so much of my own work began. Just about 10 years ago, I was living in the Berkshire community as an African American professional woman working as a freelance educator, translator, and medical/mental health interpreter trained by Berkshire AHEC. I realized my community needed an organization that could bridge the gaps in service and understanding for underrepresented underserved minority groups. It wasn’t long before I co-founded BRIDGE.

At BRIDGE, we developed a mission and 360 degree strategy to address issues impacting youth, women, immigrants, workplaces, justice systems, and educational institutions while centering the experience and perspective of African Americans and other underrepresented groups as well as women. We also realized we needed to develop capacity not only to bridge linguistic and cultural barriers but also to dismantle the impact of systemic issues such as racism and generational poverty. We implemented a privilege and power analysis, and with a grant from Haymarket Peoples Fund and the mentorship of Donna Bivens of Community Change we adopted the systemic analysis of race to unpack individual, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional barriers for underrepresented communities early on.

Through my work at BRIDGE and from my own experience and learning, here is what I know about health equity.

Health Equity Work Requires a Foundation of Cultural Competency

BRIDGE employs an approach to health equity that is first rooted in cultural humility and a systemic analysis on the intersections of race, gender, and class. We begin by breaking down cultural competence into five buckets of:

  • Institutional Knowledge (we use shared language around diversity, culture, and poverty/privilege; concepts, understanding of 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 and power/privilege analysis)

  • Self-assessment (we develop a capacity to recognize bias, self-reflect, and analyze both on the individual and organizational and programmatic level)

  • Navigating difference (we explore tools, 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, competency working towards proficiency, and identify actual next steps while examining policy and procedure)

Our approach to health equity, like anything else, works because we start at home and only then focus on integrating the other. Our highly trained and experienced staff support the development of organizational capacity to respond and be accountable to 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) to improve cross-cultural interactions, priorities, and approaches. This is why we have been successful working with medical professionals, law enforcement, public safety, and municipal leaders to provide better individual and/or public health outcomes.

Once this cultural competency foundation is built, we support leadership and organizational change by coaching alongside strategic planning and prioritization to integrate this work in to the fabric of the institution and programs towards culturally proficient healthcare and community health practices and policies.

Justice is a Personal and Public Health Issue

I am told by my partners and allies in public health work that BRIDGE and I are doing public health. I have been called an honorary community health worker and all of our trainings and conversations and organizing around justice is organized to fortify and cultivate thriving, integrated HEALTHY communities. Without health, one cannot learn, grow, provide and sustain for themselves and family. Injustice leaves a legacy of trauma and isolation. The harm has its ripples and is why I am dedicated to my work in the personal embodied way as well as in the public manifestations.

This is why 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, schools. This is done in collaboration with The Department of Justice and US Attorney office and with several community groups from NAACP to Indivisible groups and municipalities. 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 know their rights, and most recently a DA candidate forum co-hosted by Hevreh, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing focus on specific racial disparities impacting our Berkshire Justice System and how they will be tracked and measured and remedied.

Reparations and Healing are Matters of Justice

In our reparations and healing work, we partner on community efforts to honor and support legacy of civil rights leaders locally such as Du Bois or to create restorative spaces for African Americans and others suffering 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 the individual and community level. Annually we host a Race Amity Day retreat and several times a year a Racial Justice course that is 12 hours long. We want folks to know the history, live in the present and imagine a liberated future. This, too, is part of improving individual and community health.

Additionally, we partner with our Creative Economy to provide opportunities for learning through a less direct avenue. Through actors and artists, we have an additional avenue to touch the hearts and minds across socioeconomic sectors and speak truth to multiple perspectives at once. We have put on plays such as Facing Our Truth or Melissa’s Choice tackling a women right to choose or race, white privilege, and violence against Black men.

Health Equity Initiatives Today at BRIDGE

In the health realm, BRIDGE has always collaborated with leaders across sectors to address racial disparities in access to health services through our Race Task Force. We do this as we focus on improving the health status in our community. We steward our own Trust Policy partnership which is rooted in the national Sanctuary City work but tailored to our Western Mass. and even more specifically, a Berkshire context. This encompasses the experience of other isolated communities like transgender youth and folks with disabilities or mental health issues. We have been successful in passing this policy on city and town levels in our County.

While we have long been partnered with BOAPC (Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative), our role has shifted over the years. Initially, we supported integrating the conversation into our work in training and community education and dialogue to help reduce 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. Now we are moving on to providing our cultural competence training within the network. 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 this work through engagement/ participation and programming.

At BRIDGE, our focus is as organic as the next day. We respond to community incidents of trauma and now with tensions high as US decides who we will be for the next four year cycle, there are ripples of confusion, anger and hate. We are mitigating and holding those with power accountable and inviting them in in our public conversations on a weekly basis and to our monthly gatherings.

We are sunsetting on a tenth anniversary of our organization and really focused on our clients and supporting the response to protected class of transgenders and the community and workplace health as we sort through policy changes, threats and also the shifting tides of gender, gender identity cultures in the workplace.

We are writing to invite people in to de-stigmatizing addiction and recovery through training and community education. Stay tuned for the column I am writing with Stephanie in The Berkshire Eagle.

Join our justice and equity movement and visit our website here.

© 2018 Gwendolyn VanSant


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