Report: Racism responsible for illness, short lives among Rochester African Americans

Black people in Rochester and the Finger Lakes Region are sicker and live shorter lives due to racial bias in housing, education, employment, criminal justice and other areas, a new report from Common Ground Health shows.

“Structural racism is literally stealing the breath from the Black community,” said Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground, the region’s health research and planning organization. “It is behind the deplorably higher rates of COVID infections and mortality for Black people; behind higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and asthma; behind more Black mothers dying in childbirth and more Black men dying of violence, sometimes at the hands of those charged with protecting their lives.”

“The Color of Health: The Devastating Toll of Racism” connects racial bias with the 67 percent higher premature mortality rate for African Americans in the region.

“To improve health for Black residents, we need to address what happens in the classroom, on the way to school, on the job and in the home. Health equity strategy must focus beyond the four walls of the medical clinic,” Norwood said.

The researchers found that relative to white residents, African Americans in Rochester and the Finger Lakes are:

• 50 percent more likely to experience life-threatening complications related to childbirth,
• 3 times as likely to have an infant die in its first year of life,
• 6 times as likely to wind up in the emergency room due to asthma,
• 6 times as likely to be admitted to the hospital for hypertension and
• 57 percent more likely to report poor or fair mental health.

Through the first eight months of the pandemic, Black residents of Monroe County were 2.9 times as likely to test positive for coronavirus and 2.6 times as likely to die from the disease.

Combining health data with insights from experts and anecdotal evidence, the report documents how racism, whether deliberate or unintentional, undermines physical and mental wellbeing. It shows how biased practices limit access to well-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods, nutritious food and health care; how segregated neighborhoods and schools limit opportunities that are foundational to a child’s future wealth and health; and how chronic exposure to weathers the mind and body.

“This report highlights the extreme inequities in the health outcomes of Black folks in our community related to racism and will serve as a tool for organizations in the work towards health equity,” said Yvette Conyers, assistant professor at St. John Fisher College and chair of the African American Health Coalition.

The report noted that racial bias across nearly every social determinant of health means “Black Americans were forced to the front lines of a global pandemic with fewer resources to protect themselves, including being less likely to have sick leave, health care and jobs that allowed them to work from home.”

“The promise of healthy lives has eluded far too many for far too long. The undeniable connection between racism and poor health outcomes is a clarion call to action to our community,” said Sebrone Johnson, senior vice president of program operations at the Urban League of Rochester and vice-chair of the African American Health Coalition. “We must continue to illuminate this call in order to eradicate the disease of racism.”

To improve health for Black residents, the study calls for a deeper commitment to policies and programs that eliminate racial disparities, including:

• pushing for racial equity to be a strategic priority for boards of directors and organizational leaders;
• supporting existing anti-racist community initiatives such as the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE);
• investing in pipeline programs to increase the number of Black doctors and other health care professionals; and
• developing health interventions through a racial equity lens.

“Where people are born, live, learn, work and play all contribute to a person’s health. These conditions, known as social determinants of health, especially when paired with the impacts of structural racism, affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality of life outcomes and risks. Access to high-quality health care is a key step in driving the equity and opportunity all deserve,” said Melissa Gardner, executive vice president, population health engagement at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and Common Ground board member.

The “Color of Health” is the second in a series of health equity studies produced by Common Ground since 2019. The African American Health Coalition guided the focus and recommendations in the report.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

CCSI conference to address diversity, racial equity

Coordinated Care Services Inc. this week will collaborate with the Urban League of Rochester, N.Y. Inc. and Action for a Better Community Inc. on a two-day conference focused on diversity, racial equity and inclusion.

“From Theory to Practice: The Individual, the Organization and the Community. The How is Now” will take place virtually on April 21 and April 22 and will feature special appearances from Seanelle Hawkins, president and CEO of the Urban League; Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of ABC; and Simeon Banister, vice president of community programs at Rochester Area Community Foundation. Hawkins and Underwood will open the events on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, while Banister will offer closing remarks on Thursday.

Kesha Carter
Kesha Carter

“The whole idea behind that is to show that we’re all partners in this work because it’s the community and all of our workforces that benefit the most. We don’t covet that information and we actually come together to make a difference in this work,” said Kesha Carter, CCSI’s chief diversity officer. “So I’m really happy that we’re coming together to partner on all of this.”

The topic on the first day of the conference will look at dismantling structural racism in mental health, with keynote speaker Ruth Shim M.D., the Luke & Grace Kim Professor in Cultural Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. Shim’s presentation will examine key concepts associated with structural racism and provide examples of how it manifests in our mental health care system.

Day two’s keynote speaker is Rochester attorney and vocalist Danielle Ponder, whose topic will address the economic cost of racism. The talk will examine the root of the racial wealth gap and how nonprofit players can move from gatekeepers of the status quo to radical agents of change.

Lenora Reid-Rose
Lenora Reid-Rose

“We recognize the challenges that people of color face daily due to race, equity and inclusion. Every day brings a new headline of an individual or a group subjected to some injustice,” said Lenora Reid-Rose, senior director of strategic initiatives and racial equity for CCSI. “We know at CCSI that in our community people of color face these inequities on a daily basis. We see disparate outcomes across all sectors of our community. We look on inequities in criminal justice, education, housing, employment, healthcare, finance, banking – the list doesn’t stop.”

Workshop topics include “How Individual Work Sets the Stage for Change — People of Color,” “How Individual Work Sets the Stage for Change — White People,” “The Power of Mindfulness in the Work of Racial Justice,” “Readying Your Organization to do the Work,” “Dismantling Racism at the Organizational Level: It Takes All of Us,” as well as two workshops on the community level.

Experts from within CCSI, including Carter, Reid-Rose and others, were involved in the planning and execution of the conference, working in tandem with partners from the community including the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, Rural and Migrant Ministry Inc., Rochester City School District and others who will lead the workshops, Carter noted.

“We’re targeting for-profits, but more so nonprofit partners who operate in the environment who are providing direct services to our population. We’re targeting schools, government, funders,” Reid-Rose said. “There’s something in there for everyone. There’s something for the individual, workshops that are geared toward the white individual and to the individual of color.”

Carter said CCSI examined its own internal systems and our practices related to racism, equity and inclusion prior to coordinating the event.

“I often use the phrase that we don’t want to be professional hypocrites. So we had to turn that lens internally to be able to look at how we’re functioning as an organization as well,” Carter said. “And through that process, we learned a lot through the work that we do and we want to share our journey, as well as continuing to grow with the larger part of the community. We’re really looking to share some of those challenges, as well as the learnings that we’ve had and how we’ve gotten through those. I think it will be an amazing opportunity for so many people.

The virtual event is $100 and registration is at

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Urban League takes REJI under its wing

The Urban League of Rochester has been named the new steward and agency administrator for the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI). The program will be combined with the Urban League’s antiracist educational initiatives under the Interrupt Racism name as a primary focus of its newly-created Equity and Advocacy Division.

Dr. Seanelle Hawkins
Dr. Seanelle Hawkins

“The Urban League is an ideal fit for REJI because racial equity work is our primary mission, and a comprehensive education component like the one that REJI has developed will complement and enhance our Interrupt Racism initiative,” said Urban League President and CEO Seanelle Hawkins.

REJI is a community-wide initiative that addresses racism by building community capacity for racial equity and focusing on change at the individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels. Through St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, REJI has worked with more than 40 organizations and 400 leaders in the Rochester community across two cohorts in dismantling racism.

“We can think of no better organization to take over REJI than the Urban League,” said Sister Christine Wagner, executive director of SJNC.

She characterized the initiative’s work as “shining a light on the evil of structural racism.”

“It is with confidence that we put this important program in their hands,” Wagner said.

The Urban League plans to continue and build upon the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Both pre-existing REJI cohorts will receive ongoing support and resources from the Urban League, officials said.

“The need to continue this work is increasingly apparent, especially during the current climate, and we are so grateful to be handed the baton in stewarding REJI,” Hawkins said. “We are receiving more requests than ever from organizations to assist with tackling complex issues associated with all aspects of racism and creating spaces that demonstrate a more equitable Rochester.”

The Urban League has more than 55 years of advocacy and human service experience in the Greater Rochester area and will return to its roots in facilitating civil rights initiatives and actions in the creation of a distinct division centered on Equity and Advocacy.

To do so, the organization has named Kiah Nyame to head up the division as the Equity and Advocacy officer, a position that Hawkins likened to a “community DEI officer.” Nyame will also join the executive leadership team of the Urban League to augment the focus on equity in each of the more than 25 programs therein.

“The work of Interrupt Racism will build on the current foundation of REJI while also transforming it to utilize a holistic approach model that ensures all community stakeholders are heard and advocated for,” Nyame said.

Sashanna Mitchell, REJI’s program coordinator at SJNC, will continue in that capacity as the coordinator of Interrupt Racism. Applications to join the first Interrupt Racism cohort under Mitchell’s leadership will be available in April 2021.

“I am committed to this work, not just my individual job and program, but to real change, and I’m honored to continue it here at the Urban League,” Mitchell said. “The reason why I’m so committed is that I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have had to go through as a Black woman with respect to pay inequity, internalized racism and oppression and questioning my own worth. There are systems at play in Rochester that haven’t allowed me and other Black Rochesterians to live our best lives. When I realized that this struggle was by design, I committed myself to interrupting that process for my community. I won’t give up, and the Urban League won’t give up.”

Interrupt Racism began in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in late May 2020 as the Urban League of Rochester’s response to the public outcry for racial justice and equity. In just three days, Interrupt Racism moved from conception to execution as a “community-wide suggestion box” and collective impact platform for racial inequities in Rochester, officials noted.

The Urban League developed Interrupt Racism into a racial equity educational initiative, culminating in the first-ever Interrupt Racism Summit on Oct. 20 and 21, 2020. This innovative virtual conference brought together seven keynote speakers, more than 30 presenters and workshop facilitators, and more than 500 attendees from across the country to interrupt racism.

“This is just the beginning of the equity and advocacy work we have envisioned for Rochester,” Hawkins said.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer