Looking inward to fight racism in Rochester

Looking inward to fight racism in Rochester

From left, Nikki Haynesworth, Regina Randall and Michael Boucher of St. Joseph's Neighborhood Center's Structural Racism Initiative.
From left, Nikki Haynesworth, Regina Randall and Michael Boucher of St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center’s Structural Racism Initiative.

It is a harsh reality to acknowledge that the specter of racism still permeates every layer of society—from employment, to neighborhoods to the health of communities. Although discrimination is no longer legal, oppression, segregation and unequal opportunities still haunt American society.

St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, through its Structural Racism Initiative, or SRI, is attempting to push back. SRI is a two-year initiative created with help of national clinician Kenneth Hardy and a $10,000 community health grant. Its aim is to induce local organizations to take a look at the structure of their own companies and address issues of racism within.

Part of the effort includes evaluating the agencies’ own biases, seeking ways to improve diversity and developing a “change team,” which is a committee designed to guide the organization toward anti-racist goals.

So far, 29 agencies have signed onto SRI, including major players in the Rochester economy such as PathStone Enterprise Center, Rochester Regional Health, Causewave Community Partners, United Way of Greater Rochester, Greater Rochester Health Foundation and several departments within the University of Rochester.

The structural problems

The number of agencies that signed onto SRI came as a bit of a surprise to the leadership team, explained Michael Boucher, co-director of counseling and community works at St. Joseph’s  Neighborhood Center. He is a former member of the board of the United Way’s Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, or RMAPI, which inspired St. Joesph’s SRI.

The SRI approach includes the notion that structural racism should be considered a public health issue rather than a strictly social or economic concern.

“We know that, when you remove all other factors, people die faster just because of the presence of racism,” Boucher said.

“What it does to the ongoing and acute stress that people carry—tensions within organizations and across society— for us has to do with the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of a society.”

For the African-American community, across all age groups, health problems are more pronounced than in white populations. According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May 2017, 21.7 percent of African-Americans report fair or poor health status, compared to 15.9 percent of whites. Likewise, African-Americans are more likely to not have been able to see a doctor in the past year, at 17.3 percent compared to 12.6 percent, are more likely to have frequent mental distress, at 13 percent compared to 11.7 percent, and are more likely to have no leisure time activity, at 31 percent compared to 21.6 percent.

It’s no different in Monroe County. According to the Monroe County Chronic Disease Report, cancer stands as the leading killer among chronic diseases in the county, at 24 percent of all deaths. For white men, 549.2 per 100,000 were diagnosed with some form of cancer from 2011 to 2013. For black men, the rate was 600.5 per 100,000. And while it could be expected that a lower cancer rate in whites would logically translate to a lower death rate, even in cases where whites had a higher contraction rate of a disease, the death rate was higher in African-Americans.

The involvement with the RMAPI is one Boucher shares with PathStone President and CEO Stuart Mitchell. As a community development organization, PathStone naturally leans toward addressing the economic realities of structural racism.

“One of the biggest barriers is building affordable communities in wealthy, white communities and neighborhoods,” Mitchell said. “That’s true for us, that’s true for other organizations and for-profit businesses that try to site affordable housing in high-income communities. It’s great for the families in the housing, but it does not improve access to, what I call, communities of opportunity.”

For Nikki Haynesworth, a former patient and now part-time volunteer with St. Joseph’s, the issue of tackling racism is a logical move for the neighborhood center, which provides insurance-free health care to the community.

“There was a period of time where I didn’t have any health insurance, and had had some troubling and traumatizing experiences at some of our area medical facilities,” Haynesworth said. “When I came here, and I didn’t have the insurance to pay and was showing up with these medical issues, I was treated like a person and not a monetary amount. To me, I really see that line of connection between my racialized self and how that has affected me socially and economically, my ability to acquire insurance and how I’ve been treated at other places.”

ACT Rochester’s “Hard Facts” report, released in August 2017, provides health and economic status data on people of color in the nine-county area. Fifty percent of African-American children live in poverty, compared to a state average of 33 percent and a national average of 38 percent. The same can be said of Latinos, whose child poverty rate was 42 percent, compared with 34 percent across the state and 32 percent nationally.

Perhaps most troubling are grade school education standings. Just 13 percent of third-grade African-Americans held proficiency in English Language Arts, compared to 31 percent state-wide. The numbers for Latinos were 19 and 30 percent, respectively.

In eighth grade, 21 percent of whites and 22 percent of Asians achieved proficiency in mathematics. For Latinos, the number was 5 percent and for African-Americans 4 percent. At the end of high school, just 66 percent of African-Americans and 67 percent of Latinos graduate in the nine-county area, compared to 71 percent statewide for each.

Mitchell believes that an effective way to relieve economic and racial tension in the community is by working to better integrate educational systems.

“By every metric, we see that schools that have more integration, that have a mix of students from different economic backgrounds, perform better,” Mitchell said. “It’s almost immediate, that when you put students into schools that have a healthy mix of diversity, the results improve.”

RCSD has a student population that is 58 percent black and 28 percent Latino, and 90 percent of its students are listed as economically disadvantaged. In the 2016-17 school year, RCSD had a graduation rate of 54 percent. While an improvement from the previous year’s 48 percent, it’s a far cry from the 80 percent state average reported in 2016.

Looking for solutions

SRI assuredly will not solve these issues overnight. Rather, as Boucher explained, it’s a chance to look inward, recognize biases in their organizations and work to fix them, and in turn, hoping others follow suit.

“I don’t think we can solve structural racism with this, but can we keep our attention on it in a sustained way?” Boucher said. “It’s a two-year project, and then we can move onto our next two-year project in the same way. I think this community has come a long way in a number of ways, but there are also deeply entrenched things, that I just think require different thinking from us, different leadership from us, different resource allocation. How do we do that? It’s complicated.”

Part of getting a better grasp on how change is made comes from SRI’s change teams, which assess where their organizations are standing and are tasked with establishing goals and reporting back the changes implemented in their organization.

“Change takes time, so the idea is the team becomes part of the structure which takes a look at how we’ll shift ourselves,” Haynesworth said.

It’s a sentiment that echoes Mitchell’s outlook. As part of the pathway to improving the function of PathStone, he emphasizes looking inward at its leadership, the strategies and approaches they’ve held in the past and their command of language when discussing racial issues. As part of that, in organizing their change team, Mitchell felt it was his duty to lead and champion the initiative and focus intently on the areas where they need to work harder.

“The language we’ve been using has not been effective,” Mitchell said. “When we talk to suburban communities about affordable housing, it conjures up all kinds of negativity. There’s something about our messaging that we haven’t figured out.”

Regina Randall, receptionist and SRI leadership member, described the next step: forming long-term policy across all of the organizations involved.

“We’re getting St. Joseph’s staff members and volunteers involved in the structural racism initiative,” Randall said. “Last week was the first time we sat down and went over what we’re doing here. As Mike said, it’s not going to be just a two-year initiative; it’s going to define how we do things at St. Joseph’s and (produce) steady improvement.”

Ultimately, the goal is to start a dialogue about a difficult issue across the lines of all of the organizations involved.

“Traditionally, people of color have had to have a racialized perspective, because that is what society has deemed normal,” Boucher said. “We want to question the things that have become normalized, that these are just the way things are done. Most of the organizations we’re working with have been founded by white people, white people have been in the leadership, white people have been on the board of directors, white people have been employed for the most part in the highest leadership positions. That’s not accidental. We’re not saying that it can’t be undone, or even that it’s purposeful. We just want people to develop this racialized perspective.”

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