Ten years ago, I was a starry-eyed, first-year graduate school student at the acclaimed School of Public Health at the University of Washington. As I began my coursework and started to build relationships with classmates and teachers, I knew this time in my life would be foundational, but I didn’t know just how foundational it would be. As it turns out, I have been applying what I’ve learned ever since. I learned to examine the health care landscape through a radical new framework that was just starting to build steam called the social determinants of health. I learned to problem solve and work in teams. I reinforced my belief in community organizing and the power of letting the most affected communities lead positive social change. These ideas have become the foundation of my work today.
After extensive coursework around preventable health disparities and social determinants of health, several of my classmates and I became deeply concerned with the lack of focus on institutional racism and other systemic oppressions in our public health curriculum. We formed Public Health Against Institutional Racism and began creating our own learning opportunities to dive deep into these root causes of health inequities. The most impactful of these activities was a 2-day Undoing Racism training conducted by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which dove deep into the tortured history of our country, built a shared understanding of important definitions, and served as a call-to-action for all who attended.
Late last year, Center for Health Progress organized four Undoing Racism workshops in Colorado. All of Center for Health Progress’s staff and several Board members participated, along with 150 other colleagues, and it helped launch a deep commitment to continued learning and action around health equity and, explicitly, institutional racism, in our work. This year, we’ve focused significant resources on our internal work, including hiring the incredible angell pérez as our equity consultant, launching an internal collective liberation committee, revamping our hiring and onboarding processes, instituting an equity assessment tool in our public policy work, facilitating workshops to shift the dialogue in our state, and participating in trainings, conferences, and countless learning discussions.
Through this work, we’ve come across many incredible frameworks and tools, including the 4 I’s of Oppression, the Center for Social Inclusion’s powerful ACT messaging framework, and websites—like this one—dedicated to building skills and deepening the conversation. Several of these we’re now using in our own work, like the theoretical model behind the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, on how to build a health equity movement:
- Confront racism explicitly
- Change the narrative from exclusion to inclusion
- Work across sectors in partnership with community to advance systemic change and shift power
- Support community power building to address root causes
- Ensure that government plays a key role in movement for racial and health equity
There are no quick fixes to our country's 500-year-old legacy of institutional racism, especially in the face of recent spikes in bigotry and hate crimes, but if we are ever to realize health equity—a time when we can no longer predict health outcomes based on race, income, or ZIP code—we must tackle this legacy head on. It’s been a decade since I joined this work and decades more of work precede me. We know it’s not easy, but we’re here in partnership and we won’t sway from our commitment. Will you join us?