What is Juneteenth? And how can you make a difference?

June 19, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19, commemorates the end of slavery in America and the freedom of enslaved Americans. While the day has always marked a significant moment in history, this year, the country is reminded how many of our fellow citizens do not experience true freedom, equality and fairness. 

This year’s celebration of Juneteenth comes with an additional opportunity to reflect on the realities of systemic racism, racial and health disparities, and what people can do to help change the future.

Health disparities

The end of slavery did not end racism. Even after the fight for civil rights was won, unjust systems and disparities continued to cloud the growth of millions of Americans. From unequal education, housing discrimination, prison pipelines and limited access to health care, not much has really changed even as the world enters a new decade.

From the beliefs that black people have thicker skin so they don’t feel the same pain as white people to inadequate access to health care coverage, not having enough BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) nurses and doctors and lack of nutritious food options — health disparities are a well-known issue.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted these disparities even more. In a recent article published by the Michigan Health Lab on COVID-19 and racial disparities, David J. Brown, M.D., associate vice president and associate dean for health equity and inclusion at Michigan Medicine said, “In Michigan, over 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths are African Americans, while only 14 percent of the population is made up of African Americans. This is significant, and these numbers are changing every single day.”

“When you look at the racial disparities of COVID-19, we needed to be proactive to help individuals in their own communities,” said Alfreda Rooks, Community Health Services director at Michigan Medicine. “So we got 40 volunteers from the organization who went into neighborhoods where minorities live to provide free COVID-19 testing. Michigan Medicine went to them, as opposed to them coming to us.”

In the end, it was all about providing access to care.

“That’s one of the things we always need to think about as an organization,” Rooks said. “We need to help people overcome barriers, whether it’s transportation, language barriers, disability access or other factors.”

How to really make a difference

The roots and damage of systemic racism are so deep that many people find themselves at a crossroads asking: “What can I really do to help?”

While the answers may be complex, know that there are actionable steps that will result in change. To ease tension and anxiety, one must refocus emotion and understand change will not happen overnight and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While the organization is working on larger plans to combat the issue, here are a few things you can do in your immediate areas to make a difference:

  • Ask yourself the hard questions.
    • Have I done anything in the past to contribute to or fought against systemic racism?
    • Is my team/department representative of all voices?
    • How can my clinic/unit ensure that BIPOC patient voices are heard?
  • Ensuring all resources your department provides are inclusive to all
  • Creating a safe, judgment-free space for people of color on your team and within your departments
  • Find resources that will help provide education and understanding: OHEI’s Anti-Racism Support and Tools

“In order to keep the conversation going, those in the organization need to want to change,” said Jennifer Williams, employee communication manager. “Fortunately, we’re starting to see that happen over the past few weeks, but it will take the efforts of everyone to ensure voices are being heard and Michigan Medicine is being inclusive of everybody, no matter their role or background.”

Williams added that Juneteenth is the perfect opportunity to spark curiosity: “We can use this day as a turning point, where we are inspired to create action plans on what we can do together to ensure we are inclusive to all groups to further the Michigan Medicine mission and pave the way for future generations.”

If you want to learn more about the history of Juneteenth and its significance, please click here.

Join OHEI and the Michigan Medicine Community at the Juneteenth Tribute today at 1 p.m. on the sidewalks of East & West Medical Center Drive.

Click here for the details.

Williams and Rooks appeared on this week’s episode of The Wrap to talk about Juneteenth and steps Michigan Medicine can take to make the internal culture, and the community at large, more inclusive and equitable. Check it out below!