Poet, dramatist, psychotherapist, and anti-oppression trainer Leticia Nieto, who teaches at Saint Martin’s University near Olympia, Washington, uses a photograph of a tree to represent core power, grounding, and personhood, as she puts it “who we really are when all the layers of rigid roles are stripped away.” The photograph she uses is of a leafless tree with gnarled limbs and trunk in the distinct shape of a human body.
I had the good fortune of attending her workshop titled “Social Justice Through Interpersonal Liberation: Strategic Interventions for Anti-Oppression” at Seattle University’s wonderful Search for Meaning Book Festival at the end of February. I’ve subsequently bought and read her book (with co-authors Margot F. Boyer, Liz Goodwin, Garth R. Johnson, and Laurel Collier Smith), Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone(Olympia, WA: Cuetzpalin Publishing). Although it has a fairly heady and pie-in-the-sky subtitle, it is an excellent book. I’ve worked my way through the book, revisited my notes from her workshop, and thought about what it all means for me. I’ve also spent time searching for my own photograph of a tree that represents my own life, grounding, personhood. I considered using a photo I took in New Zealand of the grand Tane Mahuta, an old growth giant kauri tree on the North Island that is upwards of 2,500 years old. That was when I was feeling a bit grandiose. As much as I love that tree and New Zealand, those are not my roots.
My roots, my ‘personhood’ tree is this old Black Oak tree still growing in the leafy green woods of Camp Hanover, my childhood home. This particular oak tree is growing beside on old family graveyard–a family I am not related to as far as I know. The roots of this tree are in complex territory, territory I am still wrestling with in terms of my own social justice and anti-oppression work. Here are a few excerpts from the chapter “First Families” in my forthcoming medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016)–excerpts that describe some of this territory:
“The land I grew up on near Cold Harbor [Virginia] had been the site of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. The two battles were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. Our land was strewn with Civil War bullets, musket balls, deep earthworks, and mounded graves. Long before, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered the land with white quartz arrowheads.(…) [There was] as family burial site. leaf-strewn mounds of earth bumped together in a line like the cedar logs on the corduroy road. The site was on a bluff overlooking a ravine cascading down to a small stream. Most of the graves had carved gray headstones: Robert Anderson born March 10, 1792, died July 26, 1853: William Nelson Anderson born February 16, 1837, died May 15, 1851; and, Nancy Peasley Anderson born April 18, 1833, died July 15, 1834. Nancy’s grave was short, but there was an even shorter grave next to it of another Nancy, “infant granddaughter” Nancy Julia Elizabeth with no dates given. A few feet away were six or so unmarked graves, which my mother said were those of Negro slaves. These couldn’t have been content, but I didn’t see their ghosts back then. It was as if they had never existed.”
The deeply disturbing underbelly of the American life many of us have the mixed-blessing privilege of not having to confront: the racist premises of and fallout from our War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs was begun by President Reagan in 1982, and was continued by both Bush administrations, as well as by President Clinton in between the two Bush presidencies. Remember all the crack houses, crack babies, crack crimes, and Welfare Queens that were invoked to stoke the fervor and the funding for the War on Drugs?
As Michelle Alexander points out in her excellent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2011), President Reagan began the War on Drugs before crack cocaine was introduced into impoverished, mainly African American inner-city neighborhoods as a ‘cheap high’ substitute for the high-priced White Collar cocaine. All of the ensuing efforts to get ‘tough on crime’ and ‘one strike–you’re out’ have resulted in the U.S. now having highest rate of incarceration in the world. We also have the highest proportion of our racial and ethnic minorities incarcerated. In fact, we have a larger percentage of our black population imprisoned than did South Africa under the height of Apartheid.
The War on Drugs hasn’t made us any safer, as various politicians have tried to make us believe over the past thirty years. It has made us sicker in body, mind, and soul–all of us. It has contributed to a worsening of health inequities since incarceration leads to a never-ending system of debt, to permanent disenfranchisement by taking away people’s voting rights, and of making it almost impossible for people to find jobs and housing once they are released from prison. Not to mention the negative health effects of incarceration on families. I have worked in prisons and in juvenile detention and knew about many of these issues. But I had not really thought of it as a continuation of slavery, Black Codes/ Jim Crow until I read this book and participated in a University of Washington Teach-In on the topic last week.
Here is one of the more piercing passages of Alexander’s book:
“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color–people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits–and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt–these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families.” p175.
At the end of one of the Teach-In sessions “No Sanctuary: Understanding Historical and Contemporary Intersections of Mass Incarceration, Racism, and Health,” Dr. Alexes Harris stated, “The U.S. has always had an insidious system of social control targeted at those who are racialized and poor,” and then she asked each of us audience members, “How do you perpetuate this system?” On this Presidents Day, what an excellent question to ask ourselves.
The word ‘culture’ is misused and abused. We often use the word ‘culture’ as some strangely polite code word for race and ethnicity, for people who are somehow ‘not like us.’ And those of us white people, part of the dominant culture, typically don’t even believe that we have our own culture–like racism, we can’t see it because of our own power and privilege.
Within health care, we have trainings, courses, (and silly multiple-choice tests) on ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘cultural competence.’ As if being sensitive to or competent in this thing called ‘culture’ is possible, and if possible, as if it is a good thing. When what we should be doing is teaching to cultural humility and its Kiwi sister, cultural safety: building in self-reflection, life-long learning, and work to see/undo institutional racism.
I’ve written about different aspects of this issue in previous blog posts: “Cultural Competence, Meet Cultural Humility” (8-16-11), “Cultural Humility Redux” (2-2-14) and “Cultural Safety: A Wee Way to Go” (3-12-14). Until recently, I much preferred the name/concept of ‘cultural humility’ over the name/concept of ‘cultural safety,’ mainly because I didn’t comprehend the need for the word ‘safety.’ My white privilege comfortable blindness there. But the escalating, deeply disturbing litany of racist violence in our country has forced me to see–duh!–the need for ‘safety.’ My recent return to New Zealand, the birthplace of the term ‘cultural safety,’ also opened my eyes to deeper layers of nuanced meaning of this term, of this work.
Jim Diers, MSW and I co-led an international service-learning study abroad program, “Empowering Healthy Communities,” on the North Island of New Zealand this past summer. We had a group of twenty-two engaged university students, across a range of health science and ‘other’ academic disciplines, and from a rich diversity of self-identified race/ethnicities. As many of them pointed out in their final written reflections, they learned as much from living with our group for five weeks as they did from interactions with New Zealanders. We spent a lot of our time working alongside and listening to community members on various Maori marae (villages), as well as Pacific Islander and other marginalized groups in New Zealand. We learned of their strengths, considerable community non-monetary assets, of their hopes for the future–as well as their challenges and historical traumas…the subtext being the need for cultural safety within health care, as well as within all other New Zealand institutions.
As part of a traditional Maori greeting, people introduce themselves–not by our typical name and credentials/work/university, but rather by details of where you are from: the names of the mountain and river of the land of your family/tribe. So for many members of our group, it was “My mountain is Rainer (or Tahoma as local tribes call it) and my river is the Duwamish (currently an industrial dump/Superfund site..).” And “My people are from Italy, England, Nepal, Mexico, the Philippines (and wait–why ‘the’ with Philippines?–important history lesson of oppression there), China, Israel….” Lovely diversity, except that none of us, unfortunately, could claim Native American/Indian ancestry. We were always asked about that by our Maori hosts–another important history lesson that wasn’t lost on our students. Through participating in this seemingly simple ritual of greeting, we all learned about our own cultures.
At the end of our study abroad program, we received an amazingly powerful talk on cultural safety from Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked to the students about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand–about the need for the ‘cloak’ of cultural safety. She told the story of well-intentioned Pakeha (white/European New Zealander) nurses asking their Maori or Pacific Islander patients, “What are your cultural practices,” and being met with polite, blank stares. “Because that’s our language, our terms, not theirs,” she added. She gently admonished our students to get to know themselves, their own cultures and biases, and to practice humility when working with people they perceive as ‘different’ from themselves–to listen, and “really listening takes time.”
Her closing quote, from Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere, whose book I reference in the photo caption in this post, was this:
“Your steps on my whariki (mat)/Your respect for my home/opens my doors and windows.”
“BE uncomfortable. That’s how you learn!” was one of the final exhortations to our students by Pepe Sapolu Reweti at the conclusion of our”Empowering Healthy Communities” study abroad in New Zealand program this past summer. She was describing the fact that there are many Pakehas (‘white’/European descent New Zealanders) who do not personally know any Maori people, much less ever been on a Maori marae (‘meeting place’ similar to our U.S. Indian ‘reservation’ except that it is the ancestral home of the Maori iwi, or tribes), much much less ever have been in a Maori home. She pointed out that our students had all been on a marae (several, in fact) and had been inside a Maori community meeting house, and had shared ‘kai’ (a meal–several, in fact). That’s an honor and a privilege and something for us to learn from, to take back home–to apply in our own country, in our own daily lives. If the students learned nothing else from this study abroad experience, I hope they learned this.
I was reminded of Pepe’s words this past week as I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about his latest book Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his son about being a black man in the deeply scarred and racist modern day America. His talk was in the sold-out 2,900 seat McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center, as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures literary series. The interviewer asked Coates about his article “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic, and why he thought it had ‘gone viral’ and been so popular among white people. He replied that he thinks people like the fact he doesn’t sugar-coat things, that “It’s a sign of respect the way I talk directly about things.” And he added, “Reality is uncomfortable. Period.”
Looking around the packed auditorium in one of the whitest cities in America, I wondered how many of us white audience members were now wallowing in white guilt: white guilt which is itself a white self-indulgent privilege. How many of us white Seattleite audience members are willing to push past white guilt to do anything constructive to confront racism in our country, in our city, in our neighborhood, in our own homes? And what are we as health care educators doing to ‘teach meaningfully to’ the effects of personally-mediated and institutionalized racism?
“…as Americans we are so heavily invested in shame, avoidance, and denial that most of us have never experienced authentic, face-to-face dialogue about race at all.” (“To Whom It May Concern” by Jess Row in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mindedited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Maxine King Cap, Fence Books 2015, p. 63.) In this same essay, Row states she once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers with the title When Race Breaks Out. “As if it’s like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed.” (p62.)
We need to allow ourselves–and our students–to be uncomfortable, to confront uncomfortable truths in order to learn any lessons that are worth learning.
Our UW Health Sciences Common Book this year is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Time of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). This is the fourth year we have had a UW Health Sciences Common Book, with interprofessional activities based on the book’s theme interspersed throughout the academic year. Previous books have been Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (a classic if not a bit ‘overdone’ by now), Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (great topic but his book is in need of heavy editing–he rambles), and last year’s book was Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (great topic but read like a doctoral dissertation–which it was). The New Jim Crow is written in an accessible, non-academic and powerful style, and is, of course, on a painfully current topic in the U.S. and one pertinent to health care inequities: racism.
Dr. Danielson started his talk by acknowledging the history of the Central District where he works, and the ‘strong black women,’ of the neighborhood’s past, Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs, for whom the two community clinics are named after. Both women advocated for quality and accessible health care for their communities. Odessa Brown, who had experienced racial discrimination in accessing health care, was active in starting a children’s clinic in the Central District before she died at age 49 of leukemia. Kudos to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic for including information on Odessa Brown (the woman) on their front webpage, in ‘Our History,’ right under ‘Our Mission.’
Carolyn Downs was part of the Seattle Black Panther movement, who with the financial help from people like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown (both from the Central District), in 1968 opened what was then the first health clinic in the community. Less of her history is included on the webpage for the clinic, but I know from having worked there and taking care of the daughter and granddaughter of Carolyn Downs, that she died young of breast cancer–and at least partially because of disparities in access to breast cancer screening and treatment.
I provide some of the history of both Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs because I admire the work they did during their too-short lives, and because–as Dr. Danielson said in his speech–this can become another example of “black people being deleted from history.”
What to do about the continued, pervasive, and destructive problem of racism in our society, including in our institutions ranging from prisons to hospitals and clinics? The main message from Dr. Danielson and Michelle Alexander (through her book) is that it will take both individual and collective action for us (for the U.S.) to create positive change. During his talk, Dr. Danielson spoke of using the companion community organizing guide to The New Jim Crow, titled Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide by Daniel Hunter (Veterans of Hope Project, 2015).
In chapter one of this guide, “Roles in Movement-Building,” Hunter references the terminology used by Bill Moyer in his book Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (New Society Publishers, 2001) This work divides people’s roles into four main groups: 1) Helpers–direct service providers, 2) Advocates-who work to make systems work better for those in need, 3) Organizers–who bring people together to change systems, and 4) Rebels–who speak truth to power and agitate for radical change. The key is to recognize our own strengths and roles–where we are most comfortable working– but also to see the value in the rage of roles played by different people, because an effective social change movement requires people working in all of these roles.
This is similar to the “Bridging the Gap Between Service, Activism, and Politics” group activity from the Bonner training curriculum that I have used for many years when teaching community health. But (of course!) I like the addition of the category ‘Rebels’ to the mix and plan to add that the next time I use this in teaching.
On a very sobering (as if we weren’t already very sober) note, Dr. Danielson ended his talk Tuesday night by adding that for all the good work and innovative community outreach programs of the Odessa Brown Clinic, he often asks himself if they aren’t keeping children healthy enough that they too can end up in our country’s prison system.
For many years now I have sought ways to reconcile with my Southern roots. My white Southern roots. I find it painful to re-read my journals and stumble across blatantly and unselfconsciously racist entries. But I am done with white guilt, as I see that only perpetuates white privilege narcissism. In the words of poet, psychotherapist, and anti-oppression trainer Leticia Nieto, “refuse to re-use recycled guilt.” (From Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, Cuetzpalin Publishing, 2014, p 55.)
I am reminded of a powerful quote from one of my favorite authors, William Maxwell (Time Will Darken It, Harper and Row, 1948): ” The present with its unsolved personal relationships and complex problems seldom intrudes upon the past, but when it does, the objects under glass, the framed handwriting of dead men, the rotting silk and corroded metal all are quickened, for a tiny fraction of time and to an almost imperceptible degree, by life.”
And I am reminded of an essay I wrote entitled ‘Gone South’ (Silk Road: A Literary Crossroads, 6.1, 2011, pp8-40), in which I addressed the intrusion of the past that is part of what it means to be Southern. Here are a few excerpts from that piece that I find relevant to our very un-post-racial reality. Of note, I grew up on land that had been taken from the Pamunkey Indians (of Pocahontas fame), which just this week received federal recognition (see The Washington Post article by Joe Heim “A renowned Virginia Indian tribe finally wins federal recognition,” 7-2-15).
I was born and raised on 600 acres in coastal Virginia that was the first racially integrated children’s summer camp in the South. In 1957 my Presbyterian minister father was recruited from his North Carolina church to open and run Camp Hanover. He presided over each solemn opening and closing campfire deep in the nighttime woods, reciting the poem, “Kneel always when you light a fire, kneel reverently and grateful be for God’s unfailing charity.” As he lit the fire, a circle of restless faces gathered around. The faces of the white children glowed in the firelight, while those of the black children stayed hidden.
Our land near Cold Harbor had witnessed the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. Two battles that were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. The grounds of Camp were strewn with their bullets, musket balls, and deep earthworks. From an earlier time, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered white quartz arrowheads. My mother collected arrowheads and bullets along the road. She taught me to search for them. (…)
One late summer day in 1970 I was riding in our VW bug, my mother driving on back roads from the Richmond airport. I was ten, sitting in the backseat reading a book, vaguely registering the Virginia countryside and farms we were passing, when she slammed on the brakes.
I never heard my mother curse, so I looked up quickly.
“What?” I asked.
“Keep your head down and stay quiet,” she said, adding more softly as she turned off the engine, “It’ll be OK.”
I could see her leaning forward, both hands tightly clutching the top of the steering wheel. I slumped down in the seat while quickly peering out the side window to see what had stopped us, to see what would be OK—to see what she didn’t want me to see. I figured it was a bad car accident.
It was approaching dusk, the witching hour for the waning sun. The field next to us glowed golden, with large rectangular hay bales strewn about the field of wheat stalk stubble. Hovering over the field, suspended in the thick damp evening air were shining motes of hay bits, effervescent like Fourth-of-July sparklers. With our car engine turned off, the sound of cicadas and crickets became a curtain of white noise, as mesmerizing as the floating hay.
“Evening, ma’am. Don’t mean no trouble. Gotta stop you here awhile. There’s a meeting passing through, that’s all.”
The man’s voice, polite, official sounding, with crisp words stuck in a slow southern drawl, echoed through our open window. I looked between the seats and saw a spotless white-gloved hand cupped over the doorsill. Behind that was blazing white with a thin, trickling, blood red cross. Above the cross was a white mask and pale thin lips moving within an elliptical cutout area. From the words spoken and the weight of the voice, I expected to see the blue uniform of a policeman. When I first saw the white mask, I had to remind myself it wasn’t Halloween.
As the man moved away, I looked out the front windshield to see where he was going. Up ahead, perhaps fifty feet away, was a swarm of ghostly pointed-hat masked figures swirling around a huge bonfire. It took a moment for me to see that inside the bonfire was a ten-foot dark wooden cross.
“What’s that and why are they wearing those weird costumes?” I asked.
“Shhhhh—I’ll tell you later. Stay down and stay quiet!”
Absorbing the fear in my mother’s voice, I sank deeper in the seat, but moved over in the middle so I could see out the front windshield at the fire and the figures. Several of the white-clad men reached into the fire with long wooden sticks and withdrew flaming torches. Then en masse, with fluid amoeboid movement, the group came toward us, sucking in lone figures as it streamed forward. I heard deep-voiced chanting, words indecipherable as a foreign language. They grew louder, surrounding our car, lighting the inside with their glowing whiteness and lit torches, gently rocking the car as they brushed past it, moving across the road, and thinning to double file down a dirt path. The comforting familiar smell of wood smoke followed them.
I didn’t hear my mother start the car. We were speeding away, screeching around bends in the road. Reflected in the rearview mirror, I saw my mother’s face set hard as stone, etched with the fierce anger I seldom saw. I was more afraid of her anger than I’d been of the men we’d seen. I stayed quiet, bracing myself for the rough ride. When we got home she disappeared into her bedroom, talking quietly with my father—so quietly I couldn’t make out what they were saying, even with my ear pressed against the rough stucco wall between our bedrooms.
At the dinner table that night, my father told me we’d been in the middle of a Klu Klux Klan meeting. “They’re racist white men who wear those costumes to look like ghosts of Confederate soldiers to scare black people—and to scare white people who don’t agree with them— like it scared your mother.”
As I slowly chewed a mouthful of food, I considered this information. The ghostly man who had stopped us seemed polite, a Southern gentleman. Being in the midst of the KKK meeting had been exotic, dreamlike, seductive—almost beautiful. I knew that what I had seen—the way I had seen it—was not something to discuss. I swallowed the dissonance between my mother’s reaction and my own experience of the encounter.
The dissonance remains.
The landscape of my childhood is a landscape of half-buried violence, covered with violets, punctuated by deep, abandoned wells. The roads leading back to it are as twisted as the country roads I grew up on. Within the accretive layers of nostalgia, lie the sludge of orange dust tasting of blood. I fear—and yearn for—the complexity, the offbeat rhythm of the South that formed me.
A few blog posts ago I wrote about the use of metaphor in health policy, focusing on the Cliff of Health analogy developed by Dr. Camara Jones. (See “Falling off the Funding Cliff of Good Health”). Dr. Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist who until recently was Research Director on Social Determinants of Health and Equity at the CDC in Atlanta. She resigned from that position in December to become President Elect of the American Public Health Association. She also teaches at the Morehouse School of Medicine. This photograph, which I took on Friday this week, shows Dr. Jones on the right with my colleague and epidemiologist Dr. Wendy Barrington.
Dr. Camara Jones was in Seattle to consult with the University of Washington School of Medicine on diversity issues. She gave a riveting (and standing room only) Grand Rounds talk “Achieving Health Equity: Naming, Measuring, and Addressing Racism and Other Systems of Structured Inequity.” And on Friday she talked with School of Nursing students, faculty, and staff about these same issues. In person she is warm, engaging, funny, and a gifted storyteller. As she says, she uses stories–allegories (which are really extended metaphors with a ‘lesson’)–to distill and clarify complex public health concepts and ‘difficult to discuss’ topics like racism. I highly recommend watching her recent (July 10, 2014) TEDxEmory videotaped talk “Allegories on Race and Racism,” in which she tells four stories: 1) Japanese Lanterns: Colored Perceptions, 2) Dual Reality: A Restaurant Sign, 3) Levels of Racism: A Gardner’s Tale, and 4) Life on a Conveyor Belt: Moving to Action. Conveyor belt, or moving walkway, is also called ‘travelator’ by those clever Brits.
“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others” (pp 11-12).
It is highly telling that many of the online quotes of this passage from Tatum’s book conveniently delete both sentences that include ‘White supremacist,’ as if it is ‘that which cannot be spoken.’ Camara Jones extends the conveyor belt/travelator of racism allegory by pointing out there are three stages of anti-racist action: 1) name it–look for and point out the racism inherent in the conveyor belt; 2) ask ‘how is racism operating here?’–not only walk backwards on the conveyor belt, but seek out the mechanisms and the history behind the building of the conveyor belt; and 3) organize and strategize to act with others who are trying to dismantle the mechanism behind the conveyor belt–to stop it. In her Grand Rounds speech, Dr. Jones pointed out that we have to talk about and understand history, we have to ask ‘how did this problem get to be this way?’ “Often knowing and uncovering the history behind how we got this problem can give us ideas of how to address it.”
I continually struggle to find ways to include meaningful course content and discussions about racism and health in the community health nursing and health politics and policy courses I teach, as well as in my narrative medicine/health humanities courses. Using the allegories on racism developed by Dr. Camara Jones has been among the most effective teaching tools.
If you haven’t done this already, try taking the Implicit Association test on race, available online through Harvard University. Make sure you are well-rested and feeling both left-right hand coordinated and willing to have your world rocked before taking this test!
Words, and especially metaphors, fascinate me. They are powerful and oftentimes unexamined. Take cliff for example. The OED definition of cliff is: “a perpendicular or steep face of rock of considerable height.” Cliffs are both dangerous and exhilarating-seductive. Think of the aptly named Heathcliff (Emily Bronte’s in Wuthering Heights that is, not the rather insipid comic-strip cat). Cliffs represent the edge of the known and comfortable world. Cliffs are good places to gain some perspective.
Cliff, as a metaphor in the health policy world, is used in various ways. First, there is the ‘funding cliff,’ and specifically the current ‘primary care funding cliff,’ also called the ‘community health center funding cliff.’ Community Health Centers across the U.S. are facing a potential federal funding cut of up to %70 this coming fall (for a good and brief article on it, see the Commonwealth Fund’s Washington Health Week in Review, “Health Centers Push for Remedy to Avoid the Funding ‘Cliff,” by John Reichard, 11-3-14). The National Association of Community Health Centers has a policy issues website on the primary care funding cliff with more information and links to policy advocacy that individuals and groups can get involved in. And here is the RCHN Community Health Foundation’s infographic on the primary care funding cliff.
I am a big fan of community health centers (CHCs) and have worked at three different CHCs in the Seattle area over a period of fifteen years. They typically have very passionate, social-justice oriented people working for them, and they emphasize the use of interdisciplinary teams. CHCs provide comprehensive community-based health care for over 25 million people living in poverty, people who are homeless, as well as immigrant/refugee, and migrant farm workers in urban and rural areas throughout the U.S. CHCs are far from the ‘perfect’ model of care–they are high professional burnout workplaces and they often have much more ‘heart’ than ‘head’ (as in sometimes struggling with good leadership/administration). But they are as close to perfect that I’ve experienced in our country. Not surprising to me is the fact that one of our earliest models of CHCs was the Frontier Nursing Service, started by nurse midwife Mary Breckinridge in 1925 (and still in existence) to provide primary health care in an impoverished rural area of Kentucky.
But to return to the cliff metaphor, a second and important use of ‘cliff’ in the health policy arena is Dr. Camara Jones‘ ‘Cliff Analogy’ framework for levels of health prevention at a population level. Dr. Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist, and currently Research Director on social determinants of health and equity at the Centers for Disease Control. She distills down and illustrates complex health policy/health systems issues through the use of stories and metaphor–the Gardener’s Tale for levels of racism, and the Cliff Analogy for the social determinants of health and of health equity.
In a recent journal article/commentary, Dr. Jones states, “The social determinants of health equity differ from the social determinants of health. While the social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age, the social determinants of equity are systems of power. (…) The social determinants of equity govern the distribution of resources and populations through decision-making structures, practices, norms, and values, and too often operate as social determinants of in-equity by differentially distributing resources and populations.” (“Systems of Power, Axes of Inequity” in Medical Care, October 2014, 52(10): S71-S75). In a graphic depiction of these concepts included in her ‘Cliff Analogy,” she shows that the cliff is not a flat, 2-dimensional cliff (as in the infographic above), but is 3-dimensional–differing in how resources, populations, (and, I would add, even the cliff’s physical contours/environment) are distributed.
So on this official President’s Day in the U.S., or Washington’s Birthday for all federal workers, take some time away from the shoe and cars sales and school holiday to consider what actions you can take to make our communities healthier and more equitable places.
Health and Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s: My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battlefields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its homeless outcasts.
These lessons began while I was in nursing school in the early 1980s. The modern hospital of the Medical College of Virginia curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former Colored Only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients, as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it (to myself) the Almost Colored Only Hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad armed guards, were from the State Penitentiary located across town. One of my patients was a Death Row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him so he could be killed by the state. I also knew this was not something I could discuss with my oh-so-white clinical nursing instructor. Racism was never addressed in nursing school.
One evening in 1985, during my final year of nursing school, I was on Belvidere Street driving home from a clinical day on the south side of Richmond. At a stoplight I found myself surrounded by a crowd of scruffy white men. Some of them thrust hand-lettered cardboard signs towards my car, and chanted, “Kill the N—er!” as I drove past the Virginia State Penitentiary. On the other side of Spring Street stood a smaller crowd of people holding lit candles and singing hymns. I had been following the local news, so I knew what the protests were about. I just didn’t know they would spill out into the street—that I would be forced to see and hear them. I also didn’t realize how racist and hate-filled they’d be. That part was politely–conveniently– left out of local news.
That evening, June 25th, 1985, Virginia electrocuted Morris Mason, a thirty-two-year-old black man from the isolated, rural Eastern Shore of Virginia. Mr. Mason admitted to killing a white woman, waived his right to a trial, and was sentenced to death by a white judge. With an IQ of sixty-six, Morris Mason had the mental functioning of an eight year old. He also had paranoid schizophrenia, diagnosed during a brief stint in the Army. He’d been unable to get treatment after he was discharged. So Virginia was executing a mentally retarded and mentally ill man who had never stood trial for murder.
Virginia holds the dubious distinction of being the state with the most executions in its history, and maintains the highest per capita rate of executions in the country. Those executed in Virginia—as elsewhere in the South—are disproportionately poor and black, and typically have been charged by white judges with murder of white people.
The Richmond Street Center was located in the armpit of town, near the impoverished and racist all-white Oregon Hill, and across the Downtown Expressway from the State Penitentiary. During my years working at the Street Center, four more men were executed next door—one every year—usually during the hottest part of summer. All of the men were killed at night by electrocution with two 2,200-watt surges of electricity. Most of the men were killed in the months leading up to local elections. Politicians used the executions as evidence of being tough on crime. The death penalty did nothing to deter crime: Richmond continued to have one of the highest murder rates in the country. Murder rates everywhere in the world are directly linked with socio-economic and racial inequities–as well as to access to handguns.
Before the executions, my patients would joke about how the lights would dim in the area around the State Pen when anyone was electrocuted. They also teased me about the chair I had in my office. It was a 1930s era white enameled iron exam chair, donated by owners of an employee’s clinic at a Richmond tobacco processing plant that had recently closed. The arms of the chair swiveled. It had a padded, adjustable metal clamp headrest. The chair had been designed for ear, nose and throat exams. I had it in my office because it was handy to use for taking vital signs and for blood draws. Patients would often sit in it, place their heads back in the metal headrest, flap the chair arms back and forth, and call it Old Sparky. It was mostly white men who joked about the executions. Sometimes the Street Center took on a carnival atmosphere in the days before an execution. I chalked that up to remnants of racism and to the collective memory of lynchings.
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was an anti-miscegenation law spearheaded by Dr. Walter Plecker, a white supremacist male physician and public health professional, who was head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the Virginia State Board of Health. The law mandated that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, with babies sorted into one of two categories: white or colored (black or American Indian or anything else non-white), following the one-drop rule. They added the ‘Pocahontas Exception’ since many of Virginia’s first families claimed descent from her—so Virginians could be white if they had no more than 1/16th American Indian blood. The Racial Integrity Act wasn’t overturned until 1967.
When I think about my hometown of Richmond, Virginia (and when I revisit the city as I did this week), it makes me sad—and angry—that it continues to have the worst health statistics of any place in Virginia. The population is majority African American, and it has wide income inequities, along with all the social ills that accompany it, including homelessness. While Virginia ranks in the top ten nationally for per capita income, it has one of the lowest minimum wages and one of the worst Medicaid and state children’s health insurance coverage rates in the country. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has continued to block efforts to add ACA/healthcare reform Medicaid Expansion services (see NYT article linked below). Virginia ranks towards the bottom nationally in provision of mental health care services. Virginia has a deeply rooted history of bias against mental illness, mental retardation and developmental delay. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Virginia’s politicians were pressured to work towards improving the state’s mental health system, but they have a long way to go. They also have a long way to go in acknowledging and redressing the deep wounds of institutionalized racism.
For a deeply moving and informative (and now historical) book about the death penalty in the South, read this book by a childhood friend of mine, Joseph (Joe) Ingle, Last Rights: 13 Fatal Encounters with the State’s Justice, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1990. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Joe has spent his life (and ministry) in advocating for an end to the death penalty, which he calls a “racist charade.”
This week I had the good fortune of meeting with Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand.
Like many indigenous peoples across the world–including our own in North America–Maori cultural conceptions of health and well-being tend to be much more holistic and less individualistic than mainstream Western ones. As Ms. Wilson explained, for most Maori patients she has worked with (clinically and in research), spirituality and connection with their land and extended family are the most important aspects of health. The Maori word for land, Whenua, also means placenta: it is what nourishes you. The history of colonialization, and being displaced from ancestral lands, have had profound negative effects on Maori health and well-being.
The term ‘cultural safety’ came from a Maori nursing student, Iriphapeti Ramsden (1946-2003), who in the early 1980’s stood up in class one day and asked something like, “We talk about patient safety, physical safety, and ethical safety, but what about cultural safety?” She was specifically referring to the difficulties Maori patients and their families (as well as Maori nursing students such as herslef) have within the Eurocentric health care system in New Zealand. These difficulties continue to contribute to New Zealand’s large health inequities and low representation of Maori nurses and other health care providers in the healthcare system. Ramsden went on to receive her PhD, developing the concept and practice of cultural safety. I discovered that Dr. Ramsden was part of the New Zealand feminist Spiral Collective, which ‘self-published’ Maori writer Keri Hulme’s book The Bone People after it was rejected by all major publishers. The Bone People, of course, went on to win the Man Booker Prize. One of my all-time favorite books, I assigned it as our New Zealand study abroad Common Book this quarter.
According to Denise, a culturally unsafe practice is “anything that diminishes, demeans, or disempowers the cultural identity and well-being of an individual.” A culturally safe or unsafe practice is determined by the patient and the patient’s family (another form of what we term in the U.S. ‘patient-centered care.’) Denise told me that a good ‘cultural safety’ question nurses can ask patients (and their family members) is, “What are things that are really important to you that we need to consider in your care?” Cultural safety includes an emphasis on self-reflection (and action) by the nurse in terms of understanding his or her own cultural and social attitudes that affect their care of patients and communities.
Cultural safety has been taught in New Zealand nursing programs for over twenty years. Since 1992 it has been a requirement for nursing and midwifery registration examinations. What started off as a bicultural focus (Maroi and Pakeha/non-Maori), has been expanded to include things like migrant status, gender/sexual orientation, socio-economic ‘class’ status, and disability. The concept of cultural safety has been adopted by regions in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Denise acknowledged the significant advances that have been made in New Zealand in terms of cultural safety, but she concluded with: “We do have a wee way to go.”
Cultural safety seems to have much in common with my favorite U.S. ‘cultural’ concept of cultural humility, which I have written about in a previous post. Cultural humility was developed as a concept by the African-American physician-nurse duo Tervalon and Murray-Garcia in their 1998 article, “Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education.” (Journal of the Poor and Underserved, 9(2) 117-125.) Since then, both the practice and concept of cultural humility have been further refined. Cultural humility emphasizes: 1) a commitment to lifelong learning and critical self-reflection, 2) recognizing and changing power imbalances, and 3) developing institutional accountability. Take a look at the excellent 30-minute video Cultural Humility: People, Principles and Practices by San Fransisco State professor Vivian Chavez.
Even closer to (my) home of Seattle, the historical roots and “remnants of our unresolved past” of racism and classism are powerfully presented in Shaun Scott’s short documentary A Really Nice Place to Live. In the film, Shaun Scott points out that Seattle is a byproduct of White Western Frontierism. He references historian Richard Drinnon’s work on the ‘Metaphysics of Indian-Hating,” where Drinnon asserts that all of American’s domestic and international race and class dynamics can be traced back to our original interactions with our ‘own’ Indigenous peoples.
We all have a wee way to go in terms of addressing and redressing the effects of racism and classism and all the other ‘isms’ of the world.
The first photograph here is of the friendly and informative staff at the Alliance Health booth at Auckland’s annual Pasifika Festival, which I attended this past weekend. The staff members were promoting community awareness and prevention of rheumatic heart disease. New Zealand has the highest prevalence of rheumatic heart disease of all industrialized countries, and the highest rates are among Maori. It is a result of untreated ‘strep throat’ and is considered a disease of poverty. One of their community-led ‘interventions’ was the creation of Mama’s House as a culturally-appropriate way to engage the Pasifika community. “Knowing that mothers, sisters and aunties are the first port of call about all matters relating to family health and well-being. After all, ‘Mama knows best’.” It also happened to be International Women’s Day. (And I also had just played ‘Mama-Nurse’ for some of my students who had developed penicillin- resistant strep throat, resulting in some ‘interesting’ interactions with the New Zealand healthcare system, which–like our own–has ‘a wee way to go.’)
The second photo is an interactive game show called “The Survivors,” part of the Maroi section of Wellington’s excellent Te Papa Museum exhibition Slice of Heaven: New Zealand’s Twentieth Century History. As this photo shows, one of the decisions you have to make while playing the game is whether you (as a Maori young woman in the 1970’s) went to the shorter/cheaper nurse aid program or to the longer/more expensive (and heavily Pakeha/’White European’) program to become a Registered Nurse. Guess which choice led to better outcomes, including lifespan for this woman?