Archive for December, 2008

The Cure to the Deadliest Disease

December 31, 2008
The author

The author

At the end of 2008 we still face the Deadliest Disease. We still see greed and racism all around us. Insecurity and competition still drive us to sabotage one another. Our economy is in shambles. I know the cure to the Deadliest Disease: it’s love.

Doesn’t it sound so simple? If we only loved each other as much as we love ourselves, all our problems would be solved.

I have to admit, though, that this solution would lead to a whole new set of problems because we don’t truly love ourselves. I think most of us don’t know the true meaning of love (myself included.) We throw around phrases like, “If he really loved me, he’d buy me that car.” Or, “If she really loved me, she’d do what I want.” And my favorite, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do me that way.” But this isn’t the essence of love.

Recently I’ve been feeling drained by numerous conversations about racism and healthcare and I’d forgotten what moved me in the first place to take on this work. It really is the belief that there is good in everyone and that people want to make the right choices—but because we’ve become so separated from our internal compasses, from the voice of God within us, we perceive the world through a kaleidoscope of misconceptions.

I spend all day talking with people about race relations and capitalism and disparities in health care. What I’ve found is that some of people who swear they’re the leaders in closing the gap are the biggest perpetrators. They don’t move forward with love for their fellow human beings but instead operate with contempt based in superiority.

Our society’s greatest misconceptions are about race. Webster’s defines race as, “a local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.” However, this definition is misleading because it depends on genetics. Race has simply no genetic basis. Ask any scientist. People of one “race” may be very different culturally, yet very similar genetically. A study was done where all the participants came from very divergent cultural backgrounds and locales. It revealed that the DNA sampling of an African American in America was more similar to an Asian in China or a Caucasian in Australia than to another African American.

The first human was black: scientists have shown that our earliest ancestor lived in central Africa. It’s absurd for us to treat one person as less than another based on such arbitrary distinctions as “race.” The truth is that, although human differences span a number of different spectra, we all began in the same place – Africa, which makes every person on the planet some degree of Black (this includes George W. Bush.)

Just imagine what the world would be like if we followed any of the great teachings. First Corinthians 13 says:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

This is one of my favorite times of year because people from so many great traditions attempt to celebrate real love. As I move forward on my journey I’m learning to love and respect myself more. This leads me to love and respect my fellow brothers and sisters more. As I reflect on this tremendous year, I believe that the love vibration is spreading. This is a good thing. We have the cure for the Deadliest Disease in America. We hold it within us.

The Buddhist tradition teaches:

So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

The Bahia say:

Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path.

God’s love radiates out from our core to the rest of our beings. We’re never separate from it. Love invites us to accept ourselves just the way we are. To grow and evolve. We rest in this assurance now and throughout the year. God is love: love expressing itself within us and as us.

Our country and our world are at their greatest crossroads. So let us pick up the shield and sword of love, and pierce every heart as we take a step forward into a new world.

Namaskar,

Crystal

I’m Tired of Being Black

December 11, 2008

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Stop gasping. Yes, I did say, “I’m tired of being Black.” I bet you Obama is tired of being Black, too! Do my white friends get tired of being white? Do my rich friends get tired of being rich? I’m sure they don’t recognize the privilege that comes with their skin tone. How many times each day does my friend Pat remember that she’s white? Being an African-American, I may not be thinking about the fact that I’m Black, but you’d better believe that when I am out in public it is some asshole’s goal of the day to remind me. There have been several times in my life that I’ve been brutally reminded of my skin color after having forgotten about it. The most recent was two years ago when I was in the hospital. A nurse was treating me terribly, seemingly without provocation. I kept asking myself crazy questions, wondering if my illness was playing with my memory: Did I throw up on her? Did the blood that shot out from the IV get on her clothes? It was only later, when I heard her outside of the room talking to another nurse about “those Black people,” that I understood. I had done nothing to merit demeaning treatment from the nurse in charge of my care—other than the apparently unforgivable offense of being born with dark skin. Hell, it made me so mad that I decided to get better just so I could write a letter to the hospital’s CEO about her behavior!

I really wish I knew how it felt to be free.

A friend and colleague of mine, a highly respected researcher who does work around disparities in healthcare, was denied a grant recently, supposedly because she had not presented a strong enough case for the prevalence of racism among physicians, nor supplied a quantifiable means to chart it and extinguish it. Can there actually be someone in America who believes that racism does not exist in healthcare? This person must have no television, no radio, no newspapers. Here are the hard questions: Was she turned down because she’s a Black physician? Since she is at the top of the research game, it’s not her credentials, for they are impeccable. Or, is it the subject matter? Can we truly not come to grips with the fact that hospitals and physicians constantly contradict the Hippocratic Oath—i.e., the hypocritical oath.

Even better: A foundation I spoke to a few weeks ago said they were no longer putting money into disparity conversations or programs because Obama’s election to president was sufficient evidence that the race divide in America was well on its way to healing. Believe it or not, these are the kinds of utterly ridiculous conversations I have day after day.

I’m invited to many disparities conferences and meetings, but often, I’m the only brown person there. If I disagree with a statistic or the speaker’s point of view on how best to solve disparities issues, I automatically become the spokesperson for Black people, but I am attacked when I point out a contradiction. I once spoke to a predominantly white audience at a church (now, saying “predominantly white” is funny because, of the few hundred in attendance, there were only 5 people of color, and two of them were not Americans). I asked the congregation why were they there that day. Were they there to find out how they could be part of effective change, or were they there just for intellectual masturbation? You would have thought I’d asked them to take off all their clothes and run wild. As the audience proceeded to direct remarks to me about people of color, not one of my colleagues intervened on my behalf—nor did the moderator. One old lady said, “I’m tired of hearing about you people.”

I wish I knew what it felt like to be free.

Now, let’s talk about going to meetings and conferences where there are one or two other people of color. I call this THE ONE AND ONLY CLUB: Black people who exacerbate the problem. I am sick of being in a room in which there’s only one other person of color and they are afraid to look at me because I’m Black. It’s as though they’re afraid we’ll be perceived as a token minority, instead of as individuals, if we happen to acknowledge one another’s presence. Hell, when I’m in a room and I look across the room and someone’s looking at me, I always nod and give them a smile. I don’t care if they’re Black, purple or Klingon; I always nod and give them a smile. Why is it that, when I’m in the room with my educated brothers and sisters and I look in their direction, they stare right at me then look away, as if I am invisible? What the hell is that about? In those situations, if there’s some seriously ignorant stuff being said, I always try to dispel the absurd myths. “No, I wasn’t raised in a slum,” or, “Yes, I had a father.” However, the other person of color will act as if what I just said was from another planet. In so doing, they protect and condone systems that work directly against the interests of persons and communities of color. Or, there are Blacks who will directly express the belief that we are inferior (yes, I just said that! This is no typo). An idiot recently told me that my website (www.urutherighttobe.org) is as impressive as that of any white organization. Here I was, talking to a Black man who was genuinely surprised that my site was on par with a white organization’s—what does that mean? That I cannot be as good as my white colleagues? That I’m not expected to deliver the same quality product?

Do I sound like I’m tired, angry and a bit pissed off? Hear me loud and clear: I AM!!

From going to Washington and my post-conversation, I think there is a disconnect between policymakers and their constituents, the public they profess to care about. Sometimes I think I’m just getting older or more naïve. It’s amazing to me that any person of color survives in a system that is so dysfunctional, that offers them no voice, that actively minimizes whatever impact they might have. It’s no wonder that many people of color who are involved in this disparity conversation just don’t really say anything. They’ve been there; they’re discouraged; they have no desire to participate because they don’t think it will make a difference. For me, though, if I didn’t think I could make a difference, I would feel complicit in that system. I would feel as though I were enabling the disparate treatment toward sick persons of color. I just can’t do that; I won’t do that. I tell people that we all must stand up and fight. If it wouldn’t be good enough for mine, then it’s not good enough for anybody else’s. That’s the standard for me. It’s really that simple.

When I think about the deplorable state of healthcare in this country I always return to the breast and cervical program for women who don’t have insurance at Yale Hospital. They only see women perhaps four times per month. In other words, if you’re having an emergency, you’d better fall on that schedule—which is usually booked three months in advance. To visit the clinic on those four days of the month is to witness a process of dehumanization. Why can’t these women’s appointments be scheduled throughout the week, during the same hours that are convenient to women with insurance or private pay? To the people that funded this program: what were you thinking? Do you think these women only need services four times a month? Would you leave a woman you cared about in that kind of care? No! If it’s not okay for your women, why is it okay for these women? Why do doctors take pride in the fact that they donated some of their time “at a reduced rate” to programs of this kind, when they would never take pride in subjecting their loved ones to this breed of healthcare? Why does it have to be personal before people can feel anything?

What is exciting about the film The Deadliest Disease in America and its accompanying workshops is that it gives voice to individuals who were never given the opportunity to speak before. Have you ever noticed that policymakers, do-gooders and other decision-makers never actually converse with the persons they’re supposed to be representing or helping? One of the young Black men featured in the film was so excited to participate in this project. He said no one had ever asked him for his opinion, or listened to what he thought before. That is why my film is what real community/public health is about.

I’m tired of identifying people by race—that white person, that Puerto Rican, that Mexican, that Black person. Most of all, I’m tired of being Black; I’m tired of speaking about racism in healthcare; I’m tired of a world where we automatically make assumptions based on people’s skin tones, accents. I would like to live in a world in which I was not “Black” or “female” or “handicapped,” just a human being, just a child of God.

I wish I knew how it felt to be free.

I do not look in the mirror and see a Black woman in a wheelchair. When I think about my attributes, when I look at myself in the mirror, I do so with appreciation for the wisdom of God that guides me, the love of God that inspires me, and the life of God that enlivens me.

Namaskar,

Crystal

Ms. Emery Goes to Washington

December 3, 2008

Crystal and her assistant, Eva, en route to Capitol Hill

Crystal and her assistant, Eva, en route to Capitol Hill

eva-and-crystal-have-arrived1

I am neither a politician nor an intellectual, so I find it extremely ironic that, on a trip to Washington, when I thought I was going to a filmmakers’ conference, I ended up on Capitol Hill. Do you remember the movie Mr. Smith goes to Washington? I have always liked Jimmy Stewart, but I have never dreamed (nor desired!) to be him. Those of you who know me are quite aware that I am the most unlikely candidate to be chatting it up on Capitol Hill. I made the trip in order to attend the New Media Institute Conference, sponsored by the National Black Programming Consortium. Through NMI, I have been learning about online media outlets and working on a project in the virtual world “Second Life.” My team consisted of Mary in Honululu, Jason in Utah, our instructor, the fabulous Bryan Carter, who was working between Ohio and Paris, and myself in Connecticut. Everything was done online, and most of the filming was done in “Virtual Harlem.” You can imagine the scheduling conflicts when you’re in four extremely different time zones! During the Washington conference, the different groups of filmmakers were going to present their pieces for one another. The week before the trip, I decided, “If I’m going to Washington, I might as well try to find Donna Brazile.” Every day for a week I called and emailed every person I knew who might have a connection to her. I called her office, I emailed her office, I called her office again, but to no avail. Donna Brazile was not available. On November 15, the day before I was to leave, I called a new acquaintance, John Higgins, in Albany. I said, “John, you know a little bit of everybody. Can you put me in touch with Donna Brazile?’ He was like, “Crystal, when I said I would help, I meant I would help, but you sure don’t ask for easy favors. I don’t know Donna Brazile, and I don’t know anyone who can reach that high.” Then he said, “Wait a minute. I do know this one young guy. I’m going to call in a big favor for you. If anybody could get to Donna Brazile, Umair Khan can.” The next day, en route to Washington, I started getting emails and calls from Umair. Little did I know that he had already started emailing his friends and colleagues to send them a clip of The Deadliest Disease in America. By Monday, Capitol Hill was calling us.

Thus, I had multiple meetings that week. The first was with Charlene Muhammad, formerly a midwife, currently an herbalist, in my quest to hire a project manager. I have interviewed many individuals these past few months, and she was a tall glass of water in a desert of resumes. To work on this project, you have to have a real heart vibration—or you won’t be able to do it. There’s no money, and it’s a hard issue—racism in healthcare? Please, let’s be real! NOOOOOObody wants to talk about that. Then here she comes, Charlene Muhammad, this quiet little warrior; just her presence was so encouraging.

I then met a gentleman named Bob Griss. I’m sure that under other circumstances, our roads would have never crossed. We are as different as day and night, hot and cold, brain and heart. Here’s the thing, though—We both want the same thing: A better America, healthcare for all, a more loving planet. Bob was able to help me frame some of the issues dealt with in the film, The Deadliest Disease in America, in a manner that I had not thought about before. It is important, he said, not to look just at the legislation that is being presented but also at what is missing within that legislation.

The next day we met with Bruce Colburn of SEIU. We both agreed that we had a similar agenda; the difficult question was, of course, how to move it forward. A major issue was trust. Could I trust him with our lesson plans/curriculum? Could he trust me with his union’s lobbying targets and plans for the future? These relationships take time, but after meeting with him in person, I felt that we were on our way to a partnership.

Just when I began to immerse myself in the activities of the film conference, Capitol Hill summoned us. As I stated, I was looking for Donna Brazile. Umair had emailed the film to his friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill. They saw it and loved it. One minute I am being totally dissed at the conference by one of it’s organizers, and in the next Senator Andre Carson is calling—“Come to Capitol Hill!” they said. I said, “Unbelievable!”

just-iss

Getting to Capitol Hill was crazy in itself. First of all, there was nobody that looked like me. Most of the people of color we saw were either security or custodial personnel. Even looking at the congressmen’s aides and assistants, I saw no one. Secondly, as you can imagine, being in a wheelchair, with my arms and legs paralyzed, I need help getting around—and a lot of it. You cannot park on Capitol Hill. Security guards became nervous and obnoxious when I tried to disembark anywhere close to my destination. Once we did make it out of the van, we had to go up the Hill! And it was cold. It was one of the coldest days during my trip, at 32 degrees. Once we made it inside the Rayburn Building, we realized that we only knew our party’s office number—we had forgotten to write down his name! Obviously, we were very unprepared, coming from a film conference. We had no idea that we would be on Capitol Hill that day! As my assistant Eva scrambled through our papers and notes, I was like, “Jesus, take the wheel. Take it from my hand because I can’t do this on my own.”

Eventually, however, we found where we were supposed to be going that day: to Sara Williams’ office, legislative assistant to Andre Carson. God is really funny. He knew that we had to meet with an extraordinarily kind and insightful person who could meet me where I was. Although I was incredibly nervous, I just took a deep breath and started speaking from my heart about what racism and healthcare really looks like, and about creating a system that addresses these issues on the following four levels:

  • Licensing
  • Quality Assurance
  • Certificate of Need
  • Condition of Preparation, a mechanism of accountability in healthcare delivery that ensures that standards will be met

The next three days were a whirl of conversations with politicians, their aides, and legislative counsel about what racism in healthcare really looks like. The size of Capitol Hill is enormous! I’ve been to Washington many times, but I never thought of going to Capitol Hill or the White House. I never desired to do that; it was uninteresting to me. We entered at the Rayburn Building one day, and we left at the Longworth Building. But we went underground in between them! It was amazing! If I wasn’t in the wheelchair, I would have needed a cart to get there. We really don’t think about these things when we see a legislative hearing or see the news at a senator’s office. Going underground and watching senators running through the halls through this enormous maze was quite mind-boggling! Twice we asked people who looked more confident than we were for directions, and in both instances, their directions—given in a very authoritative manner, mind you—were completely and hopelessly wrong. I hope that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks like they’re in control on the Hill is as lost as we were!

Some of the people we met with gave the typical justification for racism in healthcare. “Oh, the deterrents are social and economic,” they said. I, of course, responded, “No. You need to go past that, because when you look beyond the socio-economics, you get to race.” Some of those meetings were very exciting, but the one with Drew Dawson and Marci Harris was the most exciting because there we got to experience legislators with a heart. I’m sure most people would not put this story in their blog, but since I am not most people, we will tell it: After being escorted through the maze this time, we ended up at the right office 15 minutes early. We called my husband Michael to check-in, only to discover that the car and CT, our driver, were nowhere to be found, and that there was a possibility that I would not have a ride back to the hotel. It’s really difficult to try to go into a meeting and be impressive when you are worried about a simple (but significant) logistical disaster. CT had left his cell phone, and we had no idea where he was. Marci picked up that something was wrong and asked us about it with genuine concern. After our meeting, she gave us her cell number and said that if our ride did not materialize within a half hour to call her, and she would find a way to get us back to the hotel. She did not have to do that.

There was a different vibration in Washington than there was last June, when I last visited the area. There had to be a different vibration because I, the most unlikely candidate to go to Capitol Hill, went to Washington as a filmmaker and I left as a lobbyist. God is really funny. You really don’t know what the next minute will hold.

There were so many angels that paved the way for us to go on the trip. First, Jaime Kuczewski at Ride-a-way, who donated usage of a van. She was addressing issues from earlier car rentals, but her giving us that loaner of a van made the trip possible.

Then there was Michael, CT and Eva who took time out from their lives to help move my life forward. You cannot put a monetary value on that kind of love. I bless Umair Khan and John Higgins in Albany, NY, for sending the film around. Then I bless Marjorie Cadogan, for helping me understand where I fit in this political maze! Finally, I bless the people at the National Black Programming Consortium for allowing me to participate—but what is so ironic and unfortunate here is that I missed the presentation of our new media piece that I spent six weeks working on because of a kidney stone episode. Here I am, thinking that this trip is about new media, and as it turns out the trip was really about Capitol Hill and my film The Deadliest Disease in America.

It is important to understand the times that we’re in. People look to Obama as the Messiah, but we cannot forget that the real work has only just begun. For, in order for America to really be the land of the free, we must free ourselves from the chains of racism, capitalism and contempt. We each have to do our part. We will all be required to stand up and work hard towards this change. We are about to have a government team that can work in harmony with each other, in which bills can get passed that benefit the average American. We must remember that it is our job to hold these legislators accountable. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I went to Washington for a film conference, looking for Donna Brazile. I ended up on Capitol Hill. However, I still am looking for Donna Brazile. If you know her, please ask her to call. Her office has my number!

Namaskar,

Crystal

Crystal and her so-called "Entourage"

Crystal and her so-called "entourage"