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Overcoming the Reluctance to Talk About Race

By Drew Martin | Thursday, January 24, 2019

How does someone who has avoided talking about race for most of his life learn the value of challenging racism? My story goes back to my teens.

I did not experience blatant racism until my first day at a predominantly white Catholic high school on the southwest side of Chicago. Hearing the N-word was nothing new; it was commonplace in my neighborhood. But this time the elongated pause after it was said was different, as was the anger it stirred in me.  

As the only black student, however, I learned to turn my anger into assimilation during my high school years. The school made me its first mediator. At an all-boys school, fighting wasn’t uncommon, but while others fought, I carved out a niche for myself. I became a peacemaker.

I thought this was a good situation for years. I heard the N-word a lot less, but it didn’t erase other things going on. Being the only black student, for example, meant feeling like I needed to — and often implicitly being asked to — represent all black people. It made me feel so uncomfortable with who I was.

Later in life — in college, at work, and in my community — I ignored inequities that have kept generations of people from reaching their fullest potential in health and well-being. I was averse to talking about race because I had spent so much time in high school representing all black people. I got tired of being a black man.

It’s not that I ever wanted to be anything else, but when I was a financial analyst, and others at my company started a black awareness group, I refused to join. I desperately wanted to be part of it, but I couldn’t bring myself to take part. I couldn’t even put pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X at my desk as others did.

In 2015, while I worked with Proviso Partners for Health, I realized my passiveness was contributing to the inequities that had been too painful for me to acknowledge when I was younger. That was the year I was introduced to 100 Million Healthier Lives, a global network of solutions-focused leaders with an aim of 100 million people living healthier lives by 2020.

When I first realized that addressing racism was going to be an essential part of the 100 Million work, I groaned inside. I wanted no part of it. Gradually, though, it became clear that we couldn’t afford to avoid addressing such an important barrier to health equity. The work opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of humanity, in which equity depends on untapping the potential of everyone, including me.

I eventually joined IHI’s 100 Million team and it was at a retreat about a year ago –– when my colleagues and I began focusing on our own internal equity as a team –– that I began to appreciate the value of talking openly about race and racism. It started my journey of analyzing my years of assimilation and eventually accepting myself. Hearing other people’s stories and sharing my own helped me see the power in people having authentic conversations. When you try to understand others, you can learn about yourself, and build the kinds of relationships we need to address racism together.

Progress Made, Further Action Needed

As the 100 Million movement marks its fourth anniversary, we celebrate the change agents across the world who demonstrate that it’s possible for people and communities experiencing inequity to become people of possibility and communities of solutions. Our impact can be measured across six continents, within communities and villages most affected by health disparities.

We must also face the reality that the work never stops. This is a participatory movement where equity is the price of admission. We must find bright spots to scale and unleash the power of community champions. We must also speak about equity at every turn.

To help encourage these discussions, 100 Million Lives is asking people around the world to host house meetings that build relationships and encourage conversations to meaningfully advance equity. Our aim is to host 100 house meetings between now and March 1, 2019.

I now know from experience that having these discussions is rarely easy, but they are worthwhile. In October of 2018, my wife and I joined 13 neighbors for a potluck dinner and conversation regarding geographic and economic racism in our town. We spoke out about no longer being quiet bystanders who watch as people lose over 20 years of life expectancy because of the zip code in which they live.

As the only black family on our block, we couldn’t help but notice a few quiet couples. Some felt they had done enough or saw no issue other than a lack of motivation from the “other side.” Initially, many of the attendees held the misconception that we all have an equal opportunity to attain optimum health and well-being. After discussing education, public transportation, and family support systems, there was universal agreement on primary drivers of poor outcomes. We acknowledged that these realities had existed for generations but didn’t have to be permanent.

Being new to the neighborhood, I had only met one person before our discussion, but I felt strongly that we had the power to change things together. There are three major employers in our community and all of them were represented by people attending our meeting.

In the end, we talked about how to take action. Half of the people present committed to support our community through volunteerism this spring and summer. Seventy-five percent of us agreed to come together again in future conversation.

A Call to Action

We have the opportunity to unleash a wealth of untapped human potential by removing the barriers that prevent a large proportion of our population from contributing to the achievement of health equity. We cannot realize this opportunity without addressing the racism that infects our institutions and mindsets and makes us all unwitting participants in perpetuating a system of prejudice, privilege and trauma that harms and robs us of our fundamental human right — to be part of a thriving, interconnected, global human family, beautiful and strong in its diversity.

— 100 Million Healthier Lives Team

Join me in having a health equity conversation where you eat, work, or play. It is imperative that people across the globe organize teams of people who are ready to create a path towards equity. We are a movement built on shared leadership and will only prosper through collective action. There are opportunities to engage in person, virtually, or through written text. Here are more of the details:

WHAT — Host “house meetings” to build relationships that help meaningfully advance equity.

  • Pledge to hold a conversation with others.
  • Take a specific action during the meeting or at the end of the conversation (locally determined by the house meeting host). This might include sharing origin stories, encouraging support of candidates aligned with advancing equity, committing to another series of conversations, and learning about relevant equity-related data. (When you sign up, the 100 Million team will share a guide with sample ideas, templates, and resources.)

WHO — Everyone who wants to join the global movement with an aim of 100 million people living healthier lives by 2020

WHERE — Wherever you wish to gather! Parks, places of faith, senior centers, community centers, school gymnasiums, homes, and restaurants are some examples. Have a meeting wherever it makes sense in your local context.

WHEN — Now

WHY — For equity, to sustain and build relationships, and to lift up and connect the work happening across the 100 Million Healthier Lives movement.

AIM — At least 100 house meetings across the 100 Million Healthier Lives movement by March 1st, 2019

To host a House Meeting for Equity, please pledge here.

Drew Martin is a Senior Engagement Manager at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and a member of the 100 Million Healthier Lives team.

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