Health in All Matters podcast
Series 2: If Not Now, When? | Racism: A 400-year public health emergency
Episode 5: Racism & Community-Driven Change
Airdate: December 10, 2020
Duration: 28:42

[Martin Luther King, Jr., “What is your Life’s Blueprint” speech, excerpt]

But we must keep moving. We must keep going.

If you can’t fly, run.

If you can’t run, walk.

If you can’t walk, crawl.

But by all means keep moving.

Michael Joyce (MJ): I can’t believe we’ve come this far in our series without quoting him. But that’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, less than 6 months before he was assassinated.

The words come from what’s often called his “What is your Life’s Blueprint” speech. He’s giving advice to middle schoolers. Just one way to accept their gifts and limitations, to inject their lives with purpose, and to go out and make a difference.

I’m Michael Joyce, host of the Health in All Matters podcast from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and we open with these words because this episode is about organizations and individuals who took up Dr. King’s dream. We wanted to explore what drives their work. Learn what’s doable, and what really makes a difference. And we certainly captured some of that. But along the way we got much more than we bargained for: Not so much the quantitative, or the measurable, that we can so often be smitten with. Instead we got the immeasurable: The hard-earned insights of hard-working people who are immersed in understanding and challenging the status quo: Our 400-year history of segregating color, and power, and opportunity in this country … these often unUnited States of America that can be so prone to mistakenly soothing ourselves with the questionable catchphrase that all men and women are actually created equal …or, should I say, TREATED equally.

Let’s start with Adair Mosley who’s the President and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities, a Minneapolis-based community assistance organization.

Adair Mosley (AM): And so the work that we do day in and out is ensuring that our communities — and the individuals that live and labor there — are activating their personal, social, and economic power. And that they can fully, on their own terms, realize the dreams and goals that they have for themselves and their families.

MJ: I know you guys are over 140 years old. And I remember from the first time I researched you, because I had not heard of you and I didn’t know that you ran two food shelves, two cafes, a wellness resource center, helped people with chronic disease management, playgrounds, low income grocery stores … and I didn’t even know that you had news, radio, and theater so that we could hear voices that we don’t often get to hear. You guys are all over the map. Give me a sense of how you’ve evolved over your history.

AM: All of it dates back to the settlement house roots. This was at the turn of the century when we saw new immigrants coming to our country. And then coming into the great war and great depression the role of settlement houses were critical in war efforts, helping with drafts, and setting up athletic facilities for training exercises. But also helping to meet the shortages of food, clothing, and other basic necessities. So where our most vulnerable populations were having a hard time, settlements stepped in. And I think the important piece is that everything I’ve talked about during that time frame was largely for immigrants that were white. And there was still isolation of Black and Brown communities.

MJ: In other words, people of color were not allowed in the majority of settlement houses. First, a little history about these houses. They were part of a very radical social reform movement that started in England in the late 1800’s and quickly came over to the United States. At the center of the movement were the houses which were deliberately placed in poor areas and designed so that the middle-class and poor people could live under the same roof, with the expectation that the  poor would benefit from the education, role-modeling, and charity of the more fortunate. But after World War, two things changed. Many immigrants — most of whom were white — were able to climb the social ladder, and settlement houses found themselves serving communities they had ignored for decades: communities of color.

AM: Even within our own history, the structural racism, the inequities, the ‘otherness’ exists. And I think it’s something we’ve had to reckon with as an organization.

NAR3: And reckon they did. Pillsbury United Communities — as you heard me say earlier — offers an incredible range of services in four of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in Minneapolis. And it’s interesting to note that, on the one hand, they have moved away from the paternalistic and somewhat condescending model of the original settlement movement, but on the other, they’ve retained two of its strongest priorities: proximity and connectedness.

AM: Most of what we’ve learned in our history — and I’m certainly not the historian —  has really been about centering community voice, and our level of proximity to community. We’ve always been thinking about how we can have charity work inform something larger and more systemic. Of saying this good charity work is going to inform, and have,  transformative impact. We are doing a disservice if we are not rolling this up to something larger that is ultimately going to move the needle around these stubborn, systemic, and structural barriers that exist largely for black and brown people.

MJ: You know language becomes an important part of this. So often when I talk to people who are trying to have an impact on something as large and entrenched as structural racism, you start to hear words like impact and outcomes and things become problem-oriented very quickly. And then comes in this language

of the people you’re trying to help: of deprivation, degradation, and victimization, and sometimes I wonder if we get caught up in that language, and forget other language like: healing, and empathy, and humanism.

AM: Absolutely. I believe the narrative of hopelessness, despondency, and brokenness does not recognize the power and the assets of people and place. And I think part of creating a more just society — a necessary part of that work — includes changing the stories that are told, as well as who is telling the story. And our communities deserve that we share their stories of triumph, resiliency, and drive … despite the covert and overt institutional and structural racism, despite inadequate services, despite broken systems, despite continued colonization and extraction in their communities … they are making a way out of no way.

MJ: I’m glad you bring up resiliency because it’s a bit of a double-edged sword isn’t it? I get the fortitude part of it. But much has been written that it can actually contribute to normalizing unfairness, become code for grin and bear it, or even romanticize unacceptable conditions that we shouldn’t be placing people in to begin with.

AM: We don’t romanticize resiliency. True resiliency emerges when we have equitable systems, infrastructures, and support in place around people and place. And we do that through economic drivers of strong policies that really fortify a community against whatever inevitable adversaries will come to the doorstep of largely black and brown communities.

MJ: How difficult has it been to penetrate legislation and policy? To be at the table when those decisions are made and those conversations are had?

AM:  I think most of our systems are embedded in white supremacy right? And often individuals and policy makers are making decisions about communities they have no level of proximity to, or understanding of. And that has been the normative behavior that has exacerbated and gotten us to this place of deep and entrenched inequities in our society.

And yet I think there is more in this moment — this opportunity — in saying: “No decisions about us, without us.” And saying that we have to be at the table. I think we need to foster more of that. We need to be more disruptive in that. Creating inclusive spaces and making tables longer. And making sure we’re centering and hearing the voices of those that stand to be most affected by our decision at the table.

And that is something that has categorically been missing for centuries.

MJ: And then there is that reality check that we might as well put on the table and that is: needing money to get things done.

AM: We’ve certainly underfunded, and we’ve siloed, and we’ve done a lot of incremental funding. And at this moment the financial investments need to be as big as the problem. There’s a couple of things that we need right? We need the innovation, creativity, and ideas to emerge. And we need the financial resources that match those ideas to bring them to fruition.

I think this moment — with Covid and following the murder of George Floyd — I think more philanthropic organizations understand the severity and depth of the problem. And recognize that you’re going to need these kinds of catalytic investments. So I remain hopeful that many of them are challenging their own institutional practices. Many are now saying: “Hey, we’ve been doing this wrong. We need to listen to the institutions and organizations that are closest to the work. And we are going to believe in people. And we are going to believe in what people tell us they need.”

[Music Interlude]

MJ: Before we move on to another organization that has been a leader in confronting racism at the community level, let’s explore the role of public health when it comes to community-level change.

Though they may describe it in various ways, most of the public health practitioners I know are passionate about this core value of their profession: to educate, empower, and mobilize communities when it comes to their health. Rachel Hardeman is a great example. Dr. Hardeman is an associate professor at our School of Public Health who studies the impact of racism on health outcomes; especially for mothers and their kids. She has a strong commitment to what’s called “community-based participatory research” — more on that in just a moment — but first I asked her: Traditionally, what has been the relationship between public health and communities of color?

Rachel Hardeman (RH): There’s not one singular story about that relationship. It’s very complex and convoluted, and has shifted and changed quite a bit over the years.

I feel that when I started studying public health a lot of what I was being taught was very much around: We have these health disparities, so communities of color have worse health outcomes. And the goal is to really educate folks. Go into communities and teach people how to eat healthier. How to exercise. And educate communities about what they need to do to be healthier.

That framework has certainly shifted and we’ve moved to a space of understanding the social determinants of health — the fact that where you live, work, and play matters for health. Much of what dictates someone’s health outcomes — their ability to exercise, eat better — is social and structural inequities and policy.

Along the way, what I think we’ve slowly begun to do is really reconsider how we engage with the community when we are designing research projects and going into communities to study the issues.

MJ: And this is where ‘Community-based participatory research comes in …

RH: Traditionally what’s happened in academic research — in public health and other disciplines as well — is that we as the researchers, sitting in our ivory towers in academia, we read the literature, and we decide — based on what we know and what we’ve studied — what the next research question should be. And then we write that research question, we design that study, submit the grant proposal, we get the work funded, and then we go into the community and say: Hey, we’re doing this research and we expect the community to just jump on board and help us with that work.

The type of work that I try to do really tries to involve the community from the beginning. From the moment that we are developing the research questions and writing the grant proposal.

So one example of that is my work with Roots Community Birth Center in North Minneapolis, where Rebecca Polson, who is the owner and an African-American midwife, came to me and my colleague,  Dr. Katy Kozhimanni, and said: “My birth center has been open for about a year, and I’m seeing really phenomenal outcomes. They’re very different then the outcomes we usually see in this community in terms of low birth weight, preterm birth, and well-being in general for that community.” So our next question was: What do you think you’re doing differently? And what do you want to do about it? How should we proceed?

MJ: If this all sounds like basic common sense that’s because it is. But what’s unique here is that the research question comes from the community — in this case a practicing midwife named Rebecca, and not a scientific journal. And the results of the research will go back to the community, not just a dusty shelf in a medical library.

RH: And together we were able to write a proposal where Rebecca really helped drive the research questions. The study was very much based on what Rebecca was seeing as a community leader and provider in that community.

And then throughout the project we were very intentional about how we engaged community members in participating in our research. So we didn’t just expect folks to complete our survey or participate in our focus groups, but we really wanted to focus on two things. One being having very honest discussions with folks about why we’re doing the work, why we’re asking the questions we’re asking, and how it will benefit the community in the long run. And then, building into our research design opportunities for community convening.

MJ: And how did they get people to convene? A baby shower of course! A perfect way to both honor the community and create a comfortable setting to follow up on some of their research questions.  But let’s face it:  this is not how research traditionally works. Although some universities like here at Minnesota are looking to change the system, most institutions still promote their professors — to a large extent — based on their publications, not for designing their research to directly help communities. Which is ironic since land grant universities are mandated to share their knowledge — not just amongst enrolled students — but directly with the public.

RH: Public health is a very applied field. I didn’t go into this field to publish studies that sit in a journal on a shelf. I went into this field to be able to create knowledge that will affect change. And I think part of creating new knowledge means that you have to involve and engage the people who are closest to the pain of the issue that you are tackling.

But if we don’t try, and we don’t make an effort to both lift up those voices — frankly not just lift them up — but to center that pain and those voices in the work we do, then we’re not being effective as public health researchers.

[Music Interlude]

MJ: Sometimes it’s not just just the non-profit organizations you’ve heard of, or the academics, or the activists that are trying to confront racism … it can be someone or something surprising … like a theater.

Sarah Bellamy (SB): My name is Sarah Bellamy. I’m the artistic director of Penumbra Theater

MJ: When your father Lou founded the theater back in 1976 — and you think back to things he said in interviews, or wrote back then — what stands out in your mind?

SB: I think the thing that I feel when I look back at this body of work, and his representation of this organization, is a couple of things. One is I see a man — a Black man working very, very hard to argue the case for investment in a Black institution. That kind of advocacy work he shouldn’t have had to do and yet he did it all the time.  There’s just these incredible disparities and inequities in investment for arts organizations of color.

MJ: People of color represent about 37-percent of the US population. But art organizations that primarily serve people of color only get about 4 to 6-percent of the national arts funding. Penumbra, which operates in a traditionally Black neighborhood of St. Paul called ‘Rondo,’ employs more artists and administrators of color than all the other theaters in Minnesota combined. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson put it this way: “Black theater in America is alive, it’s vibrant, it’s vital …. It just isn’t funded!”

SB: That’s right. August Wilson was a founding member of Penumbra. He was part of the original crew and he said he had never been at a theater where the set and the props  weren’t sort of a hodge-podge of collected things that people had donated. So you can see how this question of resources directly connects to our sense of what is possible. And how the generative nature of Black artists can be so stymied when it’s not invested in.

MJ: But this year Penumbra did get invested in …. big time. The Ford Foundation labeled it one of 20 cultural treasures in the US, and backed that assertion with a $2.5million-dollar grant. The Mellon Foundation followed suit with $750,000. I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing Sarah Bellamy’s jaw dropped, but she certainly didn’t blink. She knew exactly what she wanted to do with the money.

22 SB4: So what you’re talking about is Penumbra’s next life cycle. We are evolving from a Black legacy theater company — an American cultural treasure — and we’re moving into “Penumbra Plus.”

I feel to truly activate our mission  there are two key pieces that need to come along with the art. And all those things are sort of the equation for racial healing. You know the art is what we need to help us dream our own liberation. To imagine worlds that don’t exist yet right?

The wellness piece to me is about acknowledging that racism actually has directly attributable health outcomes that are assailing the Black community: things like hypertension, stroke, heart attack, diabetes and certain kinds of cancers.

And then the equity piece which is all about training and retooling and rehabituating and creating new policies. So it is ART + WELLNESS + EQUITY equals racial healing that is the guiding principle of the Center for Racial Healing which is Penumbra’s future.

MJ: I think many of us understand how theater can help heal. But I think a lot of people struggle with how can black theater help dismantle systemic racism?

SB: That is the wisdom of the West African adinkra symbol — the Sankofa — it’s the idea that a step forward must begin with a glance back. That we are destined to repeat our history if we don’t address where we’ve been.

And so all these sort of philosophical and artistic messages that I got as a child I distilled into a racial equity framework that I call the “The Three A’s”: And what it does is require that we ACKNOWLEDGE historic abuse and trauma, that we ATTEND to the vulnerable, and that we ADDRESS inequity with meaningful and proportionate action.

And for me there is no more powerful place to acknowledge where we’ve been, and the trauma and disparity, than the visceral heat of a play. You can read about it in a book and that’s an amazing experience. But to feel an actor vibrating energy in front of you, and telling a story, it’s incredibly powerful. It’s ritualistic. It’s epic.

MJ: What advice would you have for organizations just starting out who are facing these barriers, facing these money issues, maybe they don’t have partnerships, and they want to make a difference but they are struggling. What advice would you give them?

SB: I think one of the things that I have found successful is being in coalition with other organizations that are similar in mission and values. The Twin Cities Theaters of Color Coalition has been a space that for the past 7 years has fortified me as a leader, and we’ve been able to fund raise together and share resources. So that’s been really powerful.

I think the other thing to remember is that there is a tremendous amount of wealth out there. And it flows in certain directions because of access to power. And so the more rooms that people can put themselves in where they have a seat at that table, to understand how money is moving, who has access to it, who they know on the other side … all that sort of thing … you start to see the network and then you can start to see how to interrupt it a little bit to get some resources into these communities that may be being disenfranchised.

MJ: As I talk to people Sarah – especially since the murder of George Floyd — I hear this over and over again. And I bet you do too. “We don’t want to lose the momentum of the message of George Floyd.” People don’t want to return to business as usual, which is really returning to structural racism as usual. How do we avoid that and keep this flame burning and keep this momentum going?

SB: I love the image of keeping a flame burning, of carrying a torch and passing it on and on and on. In that fire is our enlightenment but it’s also our test. The heat is what can sustain us and it’s also what can burn us. I think for Penumbra our way of keeping the momentum is to keep telling the stories. This is why arts organizations of color are so vital to rescuing this nation.

Because I’ll tell you something: When Penumbra has committed for 44 years to putting plays on about the African American experience — to which everyone is welcome to bear witness and understand — that is the American Story.

Because there is Black theater. And there are plays with Black people in them. And they are not the same. Black theater has a social justice imperative embedded in it.

And though some of the stories that we tell are hard like the Ballad of Emmett Till, about a 14-year-old boy who was lynched in 1955 and set off the civil rights movement in some ways it’s not dissimilar to George Floyds’s murder right? Those stories can be hard to tell, and people may be more interested in seeing a play that makes white people feel good about history. We sometimes tell the harder stories. But they are necessary. We have to look in the mirror. And we have to look with lovingly critical eyes at ourselves, at our practices, and our past so that we can do better in the future.

MJ: I’d like to close in the spirit of the West African ‘Sankofa’ Sarah Bellamy mentioned earlier. The teaching that in order to move forward we must understand our past. Let’s return to that same speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that we opened with. I think these words capture much of what this episode is all about.

MLK: Finally in your life’s blueprint must be a commitment

To the eternal principles of beauty, love and justice. 

Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. 

Don’t allow anyone to allow you to lose your self-respect to the point

that you do not struggle for justice. 

However young you are you have a responsibility to seek to make

your nation a better nation in which to live

You have a responsibility to make life better for everybody.

And so you must be involved

in the struggle for freedom and justice.

[Closing music]


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