Lunch and Learn for Black History Month

NEW BRITAIN – Dozens of CMHA employees, from throughout the agency’s north-central Connecticut services area, gathered last week at the Lincoln Room Banquet Hall in New Britain for an “lunch and learn” on the topic of  “Institutional Racism and Internal Biases.”

The event, hosted by CMHA’s Valuing Diversity Committee in honor of Black History Month, featured short films, and a discussion facilitated by Tina Jefferson from the State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families and Michele Stewart-Copes and Dr. Marie Spivey of SEET (System for Education Equity and Transition.) DCF and SEET have worked extensively with CMHA on DCF’s Racial Justice Initiative.

“We are here to acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate Black History in America while recognizing it for what it is – American history,” said Victor Incerti, CMHA’s Chief Program Officer, in opening remarks. “We want to be aware that disparities in health care outcomes are rooted in institutional racism, which ultimately trickles down into each person’s own internal biases and impacts the work we do.

“The question we should ask ourselves is not ‘Am I a racist?’ but rather ‘How much of a racist am I?’”

To do that, as speaker Michele Stewart-Copes elaborated, everyone must actively consider the history of “prejudice” (as she prefers to say) and recognize how it perpetuates within our society’s institutions. For while it is something we may all be generally aware of, the exact shape and form of institutional racism may not be immediately evident to us all.

Before Michele Stewart-Copes and Dr. Spivey took the floor, Incerti played a video entitled Slavery to Mass Incarceration produced by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The video addressed slavery, the1808 ban of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Civil Rights movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s to end de jure (legally permissible) racism, and the critical issue of racial bias we face as a nation today.

In a room then filled with heavy silence, Michele Stewart-Copes and Dr. Spivey took the floor. The first subject offered up for discussion was the concept of “Black Rage’” and the lacking societal awareness or affirmation of the cultural trauma members of the African American community still experience. Stewart-Copes offered the personal example of how differently her husband and grandson reacted to the National Museum of African American History and Culture: her husband was saddened while her grandson was angered. She explained that her grandson had been unaware of slavery’s truly awful scope, and that his reaction was a near textbook example of the newer concept of “Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder.”Lunch and Learn Speakers 2.13.19

This resonated strongly with the audience and altered the course of the discussion. The underlying connection between most everyone in attendance was their history of working with people who’ve experienced or witnessed trauma. Typically, that trauma is viewed in the context of “now” or being in the client’s personal past. However, in recognizing “Black Rage” for what it is – internalized, cultural trauma – many members of the audience seemed to have what Tina Jefferson would later discuss: an “Ah-ha” moment.

Dr. Spivey explained, “If we don’t talk about slavery, that trauma, we’re at risk of repeating it.” Both speakers pressed upon the audience the need to recognize racism as a relatively recent social invention, meant to justify the dehumanization and disenfranchisement of a group of people for one purpose or another. Stewart-Copes and Dr. Spivey elaborated upon the perpetuation of racism in our society’s institutions, citing “presumption of guilt,” an issue which underlies how 1-in-3 black males will do prison time in the course of their lives, or that African Americans are six times more likely to be sentenced to prison for the same crime as their white counterparts (see Slavery to Mass Incarceration.)

The impact of institutionalized racism on access and outcome of care was a natural next topic for the audience. Dr. Spivey, having experience as a former VP for Health Equity at the CT Hospital Association and  VP of Community Involvement at Hartford Hospital, discussed the particular biases within institutions of health which leaves African American women at risk, particularly when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth.

From there, audience shared personal experiences and understandings of what institutional racism was to them. Everything from the differences between indentured servitude and hereditary enslavement, to generational differences in the perception of symbols (i.e. the Black Power salute), and even “Acting White” was discussed openly and freely.

Tina Jefferson from the State of Connecticut DCF discussed the ongoing relationship between CMHA and DCF’s Racial Justice Work Group, that began in 2015. CMHA has refined its Policy & Procedure systems to incorporate the national standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) in care provision. As Jefferson explained, the need for respectful interaction that takes into consideration the whole person, regardless of “what you think you know based on a chart, or even personal experience,” is crucial to overcoming institutional racism and our own internal biases.

Jefferson then went on to play DCF’s new Racial Justice Initiative’s training video, which includes multiple DCF workers, of multiple backgrounds, discussing situations where they experienced biases, confronted prejudiced behavior, or stood back in a particular moment, realizing and recognizing their own internal biases.

In the end, people walked away with a greater understanding of the history of Racism, how we as a society have progressed, and how work remains to be done.

“As an organization, CMHA is committed to carrying on these conversations,” Incerti said. “I hope everyone in this room stays in touch with their ‘aha’ moments and remains open to new ones. We need continue to do our work with a racial equity lens, and continually ask ourselves, ‘What am I bringing to this situation?’”

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