This month, we are pleased to offer a guest blog from Ms. Regime Willis, a student in the MPH program at Case Western Reserve University School of Public Health. She has served as a Graduate Assistant supporting Health Data Matters and related projects, including Neighborhood Immersion for Compassion & Empathy (NICE), a virtual reality experience designed to increase empathy among health care providers toward patients living in distressed, segregated neighborhoods. Thus, when Regime shared with our team the powerful experience she had attending the Summit, we invited her to submit a blog piece. If you are interested in submitting an original blog post, please send it to email@example.com.
Amy Sheon, Co-Director of Cleveland & Cuyahoga Health Data Matters.
After hearing a brief radio ad for 400 Years of Inequity: A Call to Action, commemorating the 400th anniversary since Africans in bondage were sold into slavery here in British North America, I immediately contacted the YWCA Greater Cleveland (YWCA), one of the sponsors, to volunteer. Also sponsored by First Year Cleveland (FYC) among others, the summit established, or heightened, the understanding of the relationship between the past and present and sparked action toward an equitable future.
As a volunteer, at the November 8th-9thevent, I greeted and registered attendees, and monitored two breakout sessions, but had plenty of opportunities to attend sessions with vibrant speakers, educational breakout sessions, and great networking opportunities. Since this is only the fourth public health-ish conference I have attended, I had three simple expectations before attending: 1. to learn more about African American history; 2. to network; and 3. to be inspired. I can say all three of my expectations were exceeded.
Hearing much of the history raised mixed emotions, almost like the stages of grief. First was shock that people were capable of horrific actions, for example, James Marion Sims, the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” Sims’ tools and techniques related to reproductive health were conducted on enslaved black women without either anesthesia or ethical protections. The initial shock gave way to confusion: if black people were thought to be inferior to whites, 3/5 of person, less than; and suffering from drapetomania, a mental illness that caused slaves to run away, then why did they use our bodies for research? How could they have generated medical breakthroughs on inferior blacks that would be used to treat white people? Why wasn’t the research done on white people? Then and now, white people in powerful positions know they need black people for many advancements in government, medical, agriculture, music, and religion. They wouldn’t be where they are today without us. Confusion then gave way to anger and sadness. I felt as if I had been failed, failed by the school system, failed by my immediate family, and lastly, failed by myself. Having attended Catholic schools from K-12, the black history we learned was confined to February and limited to Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and Fredrick Douglass. Why did we not also study black scholars such as W. E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, considered the “Father of Black History?” Woodson believed that blacks should know black history to have a foundation to participate actively in society. Also, I wondered why I didn’t learn at home the black history that I wasn’t learning at school. As baby boomers, my parents came of age when the civil rights movements were active. While they were knowledgeable about events and leaders at that time, this information, unfortunately, was not shared with me. After Day 1 of the conference, I asked my grandmother why she never shared our history; she informed me that she thought she was protecting us. As I shared more historical information I learned at the conference, she began to open up. As a young black girl, I would have loved to learn about Wilma Rudolph, the fastest women in the world, or Wangari Maathai, the first black women to win a Nobel peace prize or black women in history who are not necessarily the first but are still monumental such as Angela Davis, a former Black Panther, who fought for race, class and gender equality. Lastly, I failed myself. The information I learned at the summit is all available online and in libraries, etc. I never took the initiative to research my history. Carter G. Woodson said, “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.” I will continue to study and reflect on my history so that I can be that powerful force and a catalyst for others. The knowledge I gained surrounding African American history from this summit has and will impact my personal life, my future work in public health, and the lives I encounter in my community and via social media.
Networking with other volunteers, attendees and speakers, an especially valuable component of the summit, was simple and attainable using an app called AttendeeHub. The app included pictures and biographies of attendees and the summit schedule, cutting down on paper and the number of volunteers needed. It also included interactive features such as posting pictures and thoughts and receiving real-time notifications about the event.
While it has been about a month since I attended the 400 Years Summit, I still feel inspired and continue to use the app to access summit information and to connect with other attendees via LinkedIn. I also feel understood, empowered and enlightened.
Here are a few of the dynamic speakers that made this summit impactful for me:
Harriet A. Washington signed A Terrible Thing to Waste, for a good friend of mine who is a first-year medical student at The University of Tennessee, and wrote an inspirational message for a future Black female doctor.
I was able to speak directly with Dr. Joia Crear-Perry about stories and fears shared among my peers that even having higher education and income does not protect Black women from racial bias in health care and elevated risks of life-threatening complications of pregnancy and infant mortality. If this happened to Serena Williams, how could we be safe? A slide she had shown, that African American women who initiated prenatal care in the first trimester still had higher rates of infant mortality than non-Hispanic white women with late or no prenatal care.
Dr. Crear-Perry answered: 1) find the right physician and switch physicians if you feel you are not being heard or are uncomfortable; 2) bring someone to every appointment so that you can focus solely on being a patient and have someone else advocate on your behalf as needed; and 3) remain calm. The second tip, in particular, was especially helpful so that we don’t get stereotyped for characteristics associated with being the “Strong Independent Black Women” that many of us are.
Ricardo Franklin allowed participants to take a historical gallery walk to discover educational inequities among inner-city students ranging in ages from 10 to 18 years old. The attendees were also able to compare educational data trends to similar data from the health care services of the same demographic and population of students. Specifically, from this session, I learned we use four ways of discussing societal issues: intellect, belief/conviction, emotion, and action. I realized that when I discuss health equity, I speak from emotion and action. I hope that my public health work in communities will be as effective and impactful as those who spoke and attended the summit and that one day I might speak at such an event and inspire other students to do the same. If you are interested in enhancing your knowledge of public health, African American history, etc. add me on LinkedIn!
Regime Willis is a second-year MPH student from Cleveland, Ohio. Regime obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Health Promotion and Education at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in 2016 where she was a member of the health educators honorary Eta Sigma Gamma, interned at the American Lung Association, and volunteered at the Center for Closing the Health Gap. Regime is an active member of the Ohio Society of Public Health education. Her public health efforts are focused on health promotion and disease prevention, specifically, health equity, minority health, and violence prevention.