Becoming anti-racist: Small steps along the way
This blog is part of a blog-series published in 2017. This blog describes how it came to be that the NCCDH has undertaken an initiative to become more intentionally anti-racist and better enabled to translate knowledge that will facilitate public health to address racism and racialization in their work places and as a structural determinant of health and inequity in the population.
There is no definitive starting point to this story, so I’m going to start when I became scientific director at the National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health (NCCDH) in December, 2010. As everyone does, I brought my personal and professional experiences to my new role. I’d grown up in the U.S. during the civil rights movement in a progressive, white family. Although I joined the Congress of Racial Equality as a teenager, only in my 20s and 30s in Canada did I begin to recognize the racism inherent in my do-good, colour blind family’s attitudes. Organizational change efforts and professional development at Women Healthsharing and Toronto Public Health challenged me to think and act differently.
The NCCDH’s focus on a set of promising processes and public health roles to advance equity meant that we didn’t put race – or any other specific determinant, for that matter -- at the center of our efforts. We did take small steps. The first small step was intentionally hiring for racial and ethnocultural diversity. Balancing numerous considerations, I didn’t achieve the mix that I sought, yet a strength of our team is that we are a third non-white, as is our advisory board. In 2014, Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh, an NCCDH knowledge translation specialist of African descent with expertise in anti-racism, and I co-lead an in-house learning-session about racism and intersectionality in 2014.
In 2015, following release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, we decided to develop stronger complementary roles alongside the NCC for Aboriginal Health to help public health organizations and practitioners step up to reduce health inequities experienced by Indigenous Canadians. Our advisory board chair, Louis Sorin, CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg and a traditional knowledge keeper with Cree ancestry, attended a team retreat to talk about the challenge of becoming allies to the struggles of Indigenous peoples for autonomy, respect and equity. He likened the non-Indigenous view of knowledge to a pearl representing a single smooth surface: just one knowledge. Within this paradymn, the search for knowledge asks that we look for the universal truths, the “pearl” of wisdom or knowledge at the centre of the issue. In comparison, Louis likened Indigenous knowledge to a diamond that has many facets, each true, yet perceived diffferently depending on your position relative to the diamond. The team played The Last Straw and Crossing the Line, group exercises that illustrate impacts of privilege. In early 2016, staff from all NCCs took part in Aboriginal Cultural Competence and Partnerships training led by Rose LeMay, Director of Northern and Indigenous Health with the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement.
In our 2016-17 workplan, we included a two-faceted project: to find and describe selected effective and positive public health partnership with Indigenous communities, and to undertake our own organizational-level learning to become allies to advance Indigenous People’s health, using our experience as a potential model for public health organizations.
Last summer our team was confronted by an incident between staff that required us to address racism and incidents of racism between and amongst ourselves. The incident itself was not uncommon, and will likely resonate for racialized public health readers: an email was sent that had an unforeseen – yet significant – impact on a staff member of colour. When this impact was voiced, the larger staff team responded in ways typical of those who are socially protected from racial discomfort. I can speak best about how I responded and where I fell short as the director: I didn’t recognize the potential impact of the email when I saw it in my inbox; I indicated that the conversation should move away from email as soon as I saw tension, inadvertently putting the conversation on hold; I didn’t adequately understand the pain experienced by the staff person of colour; I focused on intention of the white staff member without adequately prioritizing the impact on the staff person of colour; in making decisions, I didn’t adequately utilize the lived and professional expertise about institutional and group racism of our staff of colour. At the time I thought I listened and supported voice fairly for all staff; in retrospect, I could have listened more. My own stumble was a raw reminder of the continuous vigilence and skill building needed to counteract racism.
I did, immediately, decide to use our planned September staff retreat to step up commitment to NCCDH organizational change, staff knowledge and skill, and supporting public health to address racism. The story of that retreat and the change commitment that emerged is told in a companion blog, Becoming anti-racist: An NCCDH initiative.
What I’ve described here are important small steps that have brought the NCCDH to our current initiative to escalate personal learning and team/organizational change. I’ve been helped to recognize that as white staff are ‘learning and unlearning,’ staff of colour have been reminded of the distance between staff in terms of experiences of racism and learning trajectories. As management and as a team, we are challenged to create space and organizational supports to facilitate the different experiences and learning needs of white and non-white staff. We will do best by validating and drawing upon the expertise that racialized staff bring through their experience of racism. And, in our case, we’re lucky to be able to draw upon Sume’s professional and organizational expertise. In doing so, we’re striving to position Sume in co-leadership, while not burdening her with driving the changes that we all, especially the white staff, need to make.
Our team learning and change effort – and our sharing it with you – is timely. Our 2014 environmental scan, Boosting momentum: applying knowledge to advance health equity, called upon the NCCDH to facilitate difficult conversations and lead critical reflection on commonly expressed, often complex, questions and challenges. Certainly evidence-informed public health action to change the face of race, racism and racialization as structural determinants of health inequities is a difficult and complex conversation. In spring 2016, Sume and Pemma Muzumdar, shared communications coordinator for the six NCCs, contributed to the development of a plenary session, Health equity, social justice and the racialization of Canadian society, at the Public Health 2016 conference. It was one of the most positively evaluated sessions in CPHA conference history, suggesting that it was overdue and much needed. To build upon public health’s readiness and appetite to continue the conversation, Public Health 2017 will host a follow up plenary, that the NCCDH is again co-planning.
Read about our initiative to become better anti-racist public health practitioners and allies in a companion blog, Becoming anti-racist: An NCCDH initiative. Come back to our website for future blogs that will continue our story.