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Shifting the Power Paradigm: Centering Community to Build a Healthy, Equitable, and Just Future

Eight minutes and 46 seconds — the crushing time that lapsed as we witnessed the public lynching of George Floyd. In 8 minutes and 46 seconds, people around the globe awoke to the realities of violence against Black bodies and anti-Black racism that has endured in the United States for 400 years. Our friends, neighbors, and colleagues decried police brutality and recognized what many Black, Indigenous, and people of color have long known; that racism — interpersonal, institutional, systemic — is a public health crisis. Racism is deeply ingrained throughout every one of our systems, from education, to housing, to policing and beyond. Racism also undergirds the inequities we see in nearly every major measure of health status we have. 

For many, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor unearthed the stark reality where both policing and the criminal justice system more broadly has been used as a tool for racialized violence and ongoing systemic oppression; Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than white men. Black adults are nearly six times as likely and Latinx adults are over three times as likely to be incarcerated as white adults. As of 2001, one of every three Black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as could one of every six Latino boys — compared to one of every 17 white boys.

Watch "Power & Health," a documentary examining how race, wealth and power impact people's health in a very direct way.

Racism’s Impact on Health

These racial injustices inflict trauma among families and communities that extend across generations. Research shows that racism has measurable, physical consequences on our bodies and health. 

In the United States, racism is at the root of the inequitable maternal mortality crisis, as Black mothers die at more than three times the rate of white mothers. Racism explains why Black and Indigenous children are three times as likely to live in poverty as white children. It also explains gaps in life expectancy in some cities between neighborhoods of color and majority-white neighborhoods of close to 30 years. Racism has laid the foundation for the inequities in COVID-19 outcomes that we see in infections and death rates for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color both here in California and across the country.

In a powerful Vox article, A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez highlights that Black mothers are especially impacted by structural racism and generational trauma — sandwiched between the current public health threat of COVID-19 and the longtime reality of police brutality, a double-bind of racism. Meadows-Fernandez writes, “As Black mothers, grief is embedded in our being. It accumulates and manifests as body aches and pains. But many of us have never been taught how to deal with it so it doesn’t become yet another risk to our health.”

This racialized stress, grief, and trauma contribute to the “weathering” or accelerated aging and deterioration of Black bodies stemming from a lifetime of discrimination. This experience cuts across lines of education and income. A recent study published by researchers at Ohio State University noted that Black and Latinx mothers exist in a state of “high alert to the possibility that their child will encounter unfair treatment.” The potential consequences of this stress are factors like slower blood pressure recovery, increases in inflammatory markers, and worse sleep patterns.

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Moving from Statements to Action: Creating “Transformative Solidarity”

Over the last several months, countless organizations in nearly every sector have released statements denouncing racism and committing to strategies to address it. While many company’s efforts have been celebrated, others have been criticized as “performative allyship.” According to a new survey by Pew Research Center, Americans are more likely to believe pressure from others, rather than genuine concern for Black people, has driven the release of recent statements about race. Shallow commitments will not ensure that everyone has the tailored resources and opportunities to not only survive, but to thrive. While the road to a just and equitable future is long, there are immediate steps that we can take within our spheres of influence, to begin the process of transforming our systems and institutions.

1. Acknowledge Community Wisdom 

If we hope to create healthier, more resilient communities built on justice and liberation, we need what Michael McAffee, president and CEO of PolicyLink calls “transformative solidarity.” Transformative solidarity requires us to dismantle long-standing power imbalances that maintain the status quo and discounts the voices, wisdom, and lived experiences of those most impacted by inequities. It means shifting the knowledge paradigm, recognizing that the true experts are communities themselves with an intimate understanding of the issues and the solutions.

Many successful movements to improve community health, social, and political conditions particularly in Black and Brown neighborhoods, originated at the grassroots level. From gathering in church basements, classrooms, or kitchen tables, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous organizers have historically strategized and mobilized to make change happen for themselves, their families, and communities, even when resources were scarce. And yet, our systems have long fought to invalidate community-driven solutions and maintain power and resources. There is much to be learned, and powerful opportunities to create generational change when institutions are willing to center the needs and visions of the communities they serve.

Protestors hug at the Brown Unity March, which was organized to unite the Black, Latino and Indigenous communities in demanding justice for victims of police brutality in Los Angeles. | ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images
Protestors hug at the Brown Unity March, which was organized to unite the Black, Latino and Indigenous communities in demanding justice for victims of police brutality in Los Angeles. | ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

2. Commit to the Journey of Unlearning

Institutional transformation cannot happen devoid of leaders and staff that are committed, individually and collectively, to unlearning the pervasive false narratives and history that have been taught. This unlearning will require us to disrupt the “business as usual” mindset which can lull us into passivity. It also means accepting and sitting in discomfort, to figure out what we are willing to risk, and to deepen relationships rather than walk away when they challenge us. By embracing our individual role in either maintaining or disrupting systems of oppression, we can also work towards a vision of a future that centers on health, equity and justice. When we commit to this work across our institutions and systems, we open up even more possibilities for transformative change. 

Marching Forward Together to Build a Just Future

Activist-scholar Dr. Angela Davis said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world.” A truly equitable society can be difficult for many to imagine; it is difficult to envision the intangible and authentic, systemic shifts that our nation has never truly seen. Transformative solidarity demands that we embrace a collective, expansive vision of what could be and maintain a steadfast commitment to transforming our shared vision into reality. It requires us to disrupt the status quo and embrace a shift in power away from those at the top of institutions to community members themselves. It requires a vision for a future where all of us, regardless of race, or where we are born, can live a healthy, safe, and thriving life. 

Top image: Woman holds a poster describing the need to fight the abuse of power in a demonstration to protest the killing of George Floyd in Des Moines, Iowa. | Phil Roeder/Flickr/Creative Commons License 

 

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