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GMH Newsletter Featured Topics – June 2020

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Perspectives from GMH Faculty on racial justice and sustainable change

June 2020 was an historic month in Seattle and around the world as protests against police brutality and in support of Black lives expanded. In Seattle, as elsewhere, a space opened for Black students, staff and faculty in our university to verbalize their experiences of racism writ large and to be heard in a new way. This moment has also provided an opportunity for all of us (Black, people of color [POC] and white allies/accomplices) to articulate pathways to policy changes in our nation, city and university. In this issue of the newsletter, we offer reflections from UWGMH faculty and staff on racial equity and opportunities for transformation.

Pamela: Last week, my colleague, Dr. Estell Williams, invited me to join three medical and legal colleagues from the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospitali who are powerful vocal advocates for health equity. We provided expert testimony to the King County Law and Justice Committee on racism and police violence as a public health crisis. I paraphrased much of Jacob Bor and colleagues’ Lancet paper on the mental health effects of police shootings on Black Americansii and David Williams and colleagues’ work on racial discrimination and mental health outcomes.iii In listening to my colleagues, I was reminded of three things: the power of the personal story, the power of the evidence base, and the power we hold (as instructors, health care providers, students, and researchers) to advocate for the people we know are seldom heard. For me, personally, this means being willing to be vulnerable, a commitment to disseminate and keep creating the evidence that helps support racial equity, and reminding our public of the people who sit at the intersections of vulnerability to discrimination and inequity (e.g. Black people with mental health conditions). This is a line of work I love–as do others on our team–and have been part of for many years.

A multiracial and gender diverse group of UWGMH faculty and staff accepted the call to vulnerability as they expressed thoughts and emotions on the last few weeks of action in the US and Seattle. The reflections sounded like this:

This movement expanded so fast.
We are optimistic.
This movement has created so much change so fast, but will it be sustained?
Enough talking!
People need to be leaders and really be courageous to change our society.
There haven’t been enough big ideas and big leadership.
We don’t need more meetings. We need more action. We need financial and political commitment within our University and cities to tackle the structural problems.
We’re not sure how much more we can take.
There’s been a little movement for people to have these conversations, but there is a long way to go. We’ve barely scratched the surface.

Tessa: I will preface this statement with my power and privilege of being a white, Cuban-German able-bodied cis-woman. This movement is also different. It has galvanized white young people in a way that we have never before seen. It is LONG overdue and comes at the devastating price of the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others. The sustained protest in Seattle has united thousands of healthcare and public health workers to look internally–at our boardrooms and conference rooms–to acknowledge the racial discrimination there. My hope is that this movement nurtures a sustained change for young people in Seattle. I hope that young white people, white faculty and staff, and white leadership step of their comfort zones to challenge racial biases and policies.

Alongside our international activities, many of us at UWGMH are already engaged in intervention and implementation research that addresses mental health disparities among racial or ethnic minority communities in our region and in other parts of the US. We are re-examining how our local and international activities around these themes can be highlighted in our program’s strategic plan. This way, we will be more purposeful in tracking our progress and impact.

[i] Dr. Estell Williams, Edwin Lindo, JD, Dr. Ben Danielson, Dr. Anisa Ibrahin
[ii] Bor J, Venkataramani AS, Williams DR, Tsai AC. Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: a population-based, quasi-experimental study. Lancet. 2018;392(10144):302-310. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31130-9
[iii] Williams DR, Lawrence JA, Davis BA, Vu C. Understanding how discrimination can affect health. Health Serv Res. 2019;54 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):1374-1388. doi:10.1111/1475-6773.13222