February 15, 2018
My Year of Waking Up – Series: Part 2 of 5
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.