I dedicate this post to my friends Dana Roc and Zita Dixon
Advocacy: ‘The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support’
Community: ‘A body of people having common rights, privileges, or interests, or living in the same place under the same laws and regulations’
Non-profit: ‘not established for the purpose of making a profit’
Philanthropy: ‘altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement, usually manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons, by endowment of institutions of learning and hospitals, and by generosity to other socially useful purposes’
Leadership: ‘an act or instance of leading; guidance; direction’
What do all of these words have to do with racism, or the microcosm of racism in health care? They either hinder healing or they assist in healing. Can they obstruct progress under the disguise of assisting?
I have met and had the pleasure to work alongside many wonderful organizations and individuals that are more than willing to team up with anyone of integrity and courage that will further their cause. We have had the true fortune to meet with and fight along side organizations that are right there on the front line: Dr. Aletha Maybanks, Bob Griss of the Institute of Social Medicine & Community Health, Cicatelli and Associates in New York, Denise Materre in Colorado, Janice Walker in New Jersey, The Leadership Diversity Forum in Connecticut, Michelle Materre of Missing Pixel in New York, SEIU in Washington, DC, and the list goes on. These individuals and organizations are not just talking the talk, but they are walking the walk and taking part in the actual work that is necessary to promote/create change.
What I have found is that there is such a feeling of isolation surrounding us – the battle is only made harder when we go to reach out to other organizations that do similar work, only to end up falling into a sort of ‘Crabs in a Barrel” syndrome. It seems that the fear of honest collaboration, which is heightened in this harsh economic time, is endangering the positive momentum that we could create together.
In the last few months, I have found myself getting extremely frustrated. I work with groups whose mission statements and advocacy agendas are to work towards closing the gaps in disparities within the health care system. They receive large amounts of funding and financial support to help them achieve these goals, but refuse to collaborate effectively with other organizations or foundations in order to make progress. It is not possible for real advancements to be made in addressing and designing programs through an organization that will not even bring us to the same table.
It seems that the agendas of some other organizations are ambiguous at best. This mix was evident in the most recent national discussion of the dilemma in current health care reform at President Obama’s Health Summit two weeks ago. This event was attended by insurance companies, lobbyists, and many big players at every turn, but you would have been hard pressed to find any person or group who was there as a representative for the average person of color. There were no advocates out there screaming loud, “What difference does it make if we have access to health care, but are still treated as second class citizens?!” These Dilemmas and lack of collaborative advocacy that represents all people drive me crazy.
Yet I’m relieved when positive change happens, like when we take a medical school like Yale University, and pair it with a grass roots organization such as Alpha Kappa Alpha or Omega Psi Phi, and we combine that team with a foundation. When we merge those relationships with an Office of Minority Affairs, and combine that union with various religious organizations, real progress and change can come! We need to all sit down together and look at what the real issues are that are relevant to our community. If we could just pick one issue, and work together as a team, we can annihilate that which is negative and replace it with a positive. We must learn from our achievements and our failures – perfectly exemplified in the recent election of President Barack Obama. Despite the multiplicity of levels of participation, (with very different agendas) differences were set aside bringing together the most influential coalition in the world, the average Joe from around the corner, and all of those in between, to succeed in electing our new president.
Along my path I have encountered groups that say they will collaborate with you, but only end up doing so in name. There is no shared agenda or shared efforts. You do all of the work and they get to put their names on the project at the end of the day. Oh yes, we have met our share of those. Organizations and people like this will tell you that their support is in simply letting you use their name. Our experience has been that later when we read their annual report, or we see an article that they’ve done, they include the work that we did, they include our data, they receive what should be our credit and resulted funding. They claim credit for what we work so hard to achieve. Sadly this has become an acceptable understanding of partnership and collaboration – but I believe it must stop. Real change is not going to happen through lazy relationships or dishonest collaboration.
This behavior, and the resulting distrust factor, is all too disturbing. No one trusts the other one anymore, and it seems that too often, we may have good reasons for this. Our organization’s own history of relationships has been plagued by one of the biggest organizations in New Haven, who we did a project with not so long ago. They, of course, had a better press machine than us, and at the end of the day, this allowed them to get credit for all of our work. We did a project in Stamford, and were faced with a lack of support from the then-director of Public Health (not the current director). On the day of the event, when the project was coming to a wrap, he came just in time to talk to the local film crew – and set about to offer an interview. He talked about all of the work that ‘his office’ was doing around breast cancer, and never once mentioned our program, our facilitators, or our company. His staff person did not even suggest to him this very obvious omission.
Though there are many examples and reasons to be wary of trusting others, we must get beyond this distrust factor. Mistrust can be a dangerous and destructive quality. The truth is that if we do not have faith, we will miss the opportunity to work with those who are wonderful and sincerely committed to ending disparities in health care. Some may attempt to employ strategies that work against enriching and empowering real communities, rather than hospitals and corporations. To do so is to be disingenuous to healthcare reform and health care advocacy for people of color. We all know the saying, ‘divide and conquer’, but it is our own egos, greedy thoughts and sense of survival that lead us down this mortally wrong path.
I am happy that what we are doing with our most current project, The Deadliest Disease in America, is a good example of honest collaboration. We are collaborating for every event, with six multi-level organizations (community groups, religious groups, politicians, universities, civic organizations, and medical schools) that have a stake within the specific community that we are working with, and have demonstrated a commitment to eradicating racism in health care. So far, in the past twelve months, our organization has collaborated with over sixty groups across the country. A sample of these organizations are: Alpha Pi Alpha Fraternity, Association of Black Women Attorneys, Cicatelli Associates, Coalition of 100 Black Women, Connecticut Health Care Foundation, The Diversity Leadership Forum, Global Cancer Control, Institute of Social Medicine & Community Health, Islamic Temples, Latinos for National Health Insurance, Missing Pixel, Service Employees International Union, State Offices of Minority Affairs, The Unitarian Church, Universal Healthcare Foundation, and Working Films. Each of these organizations have strong similarities in agendas, which are to expose racism in health care, to educate people, and to create projects that eradicate this racism. The places where we each differ from our partners provide opportunities for synergistic developments, bringing a whole different level, making our alliance that much stronger in waging the greater battle. It is when we join together that we can represent a different, stronger constituency; yet continue to move the cause forward in our own unique way, and therefore have more impact.
As you read this blog, ask yourself, what are you doing on an individual level? What institutions are you interacting with everyday, and what are they doing? How is your community divided? How can you get these organizations to work together? How diverse is the color in this community within the institution, or is there mainly one color represented? You must not accept the one and only syndrome, but strive for people of color to be at that table. What are you doing to communicate and educate? If your answer to this question is nothing, then you need to get off your lazy ass, because there is a whole lot of work to be done – and it starts with YOU. If you are a bystander waiting for change to happen, waiting for America to become more humane, then you just might have become part of the problem. Do not miss the boat on this one.
We have choices here. We can partner for the common good of our country and our world. That starts by cleaning up ourselves and the baggage that we bring to the table.
We can be petty, small-minded crabs in a barrel, allowing our egos to dominate over any chance of far-reaching and inclusive progress.
This is a complex situation, but the answer is easy. It starts with you. Will you perpetuate agendas that promote self-interest or will you honestly collaborate with organizations that seek to empower and improve health care opportunities for all?
For more information, including a list of events, please visit our website at http://www.urutherighttobe.org