I was eager to attend Bridging Health and Community’s symposium, Community Agency & Health. At the time, I was five months into a new position with Buncombe County’s just-formed Community Engagement Team. I arrived ready to learn.
The people at our tables were curated and mine was a dazzling mix of professions, backgrounds, locales and perspectives. Our facilitated and impromptu conversations encouraged me to think deeply about the issues of improving community health. Impressed with the work being done by others and enthralled by their talent, I was most of all transfixed by the common thread that something was missing. I returned home with a sense of camaraderie based on the knowledge that we all knew that we were losing in one way or the other, but were intrigued and inspired to figure out what to do next.
In my assessment, the single most important step we must take is to address the health care industry’s obstruction of authentically partnering with community. I asked at the symposium, “What is the fear of this new way of working?”. Linda Gonzalez, the racial justice facilitator articulated the idea to ‘tend to the emotion’ of a contentious issue. So, what emotion is behind health care’s reluctance to bring community to the table? Tradition? Uncertainty? Job security? Loss of power?
Bridget B Kelly addressing the symposium participants (Photo by Nicolle Bennett)
I am not a long-standing member of the health care industry. There are no two- or three-letter acronyms after my name. I have never been published. And I’m not sure I aspire to these accolades. Then who am I to ask these questions? I am a piece of the puzzle. My role is to be a bridge and translator between institutions and community. My charge is to intimately understand institutions’ and community’s independent motivations, capabilities and limitations, and to then weave that knowledge into a path forwards.
I am often in a room of white professionals calculating how to aide those who, more times than not, are not of the same race. The myriad of emotions, decisions, and missteps that happen in these rooms are nearly impossible to decipher, but I absolutely know race plays a factor. At the symposium, race, discrimination and bias were missing from the conversation. We all know the destructive force these things can be, so, again, what and who are we protecting by not addressing them directly? During the symposium, Carl Baty, a black man, shared his experiences of being let down by multiple systems. I found his presence and contribution to be on par with the rest of the presenters but my sense is that others may not have felt the same. Again, what are we protecting?
Photo by Nicolle Bennett
My hope is in some distant future we will no longer need a ‘buffer class’ of occupations like mine to bring together institutions and communities. They should already be at the table and should know how to be in a relationship with each other. Until then, we must include race in further discussions, especially as we consider how systemic and invisible structures continue to undermine individual and community agency.
From one puzzle piece to the other.