Written by: Cheyenne Hensey
I want to share how I became so passionate about the health equity work DFR does with communities as well as my journey to becoming a DFR intern.
Full disclosure: I’m coming to you as a privileged white woman – and also as a self-proclaimed antiracist who hopes to help eradicate racist ideas from America’s system and transform it into a system of equity.
Systemic racial injustice is what fueled my passion for the overarching concept of social justice, and a vision for a socially just future society is what pushed me back into school to be educated in social work. During my initial few months of social work courses and a case management internship, I had not yet discovered how a future career conducive to social justice would manifest – School social worker? Addiction counselor? Legislator? Nothing quite felt right.
In November 2018, only a couple months after beginning the social work program at the University of Denver, I timidly attended a symposium titled Race, Racism, and Health, where the honorable Dr. David R. Williams would not only be the keynote speaker, but also change the direction of my future for good.
Dr. Williams exposed to me the interconnectedness of racist historical policies, socioeconomic status, intentional and unintentional discrimination, and health disparities between racial groups. He explained that residential segregation policies from the past have an ongoing disparate impact on peoples’ place of living, and place unequivocally determines the quality and availability of social factors – schools, job opportunity, safe and healthy housing, and so much more. Along with generational wealth differences that arise from culminating effects of institutional racism and the withholding of homeownership opportunity, the status of these social factors determines the socioeconomic status of communities and, ultimately, their health outcomes.
In addition to exposing accurate history that has perpetually resulted in racial and ethnic disparities in lived experiences and health, it is imperative to discuss the health impacts of perceived discrimination on the human body. Dr. Williams explained that socioeconomic status aside, People of Color disproportionately experience discrimination, whether intentionally or unintentionally inflicted, on a regular basis. Perceived discrimination equates to stress. When the body endures this level of stress on the daily, adverse health concerns and outcomes are the result – such as, Black and Brown babies having lower birth weight, People of Color having higher levels of visceral fat, and more.
Dr. Williams also spoke to the racism that exists within the healthcare system itself. Negative racial stereotypes so deeply embedded in our society also infiltrate how medical care is provided. One of Dr. Williams’ studies on racism and healthcare found that of patients who had a broken arm, 55% of Latinos and 55% of Blacks did not receive pain medication, while only 26% of Whites were not given pain medication. He explained that stereotype-linked biases are automatic and unconscious – it happens in one-third the time it takes to blink. There is no room for implicit biases in a space “committed” to providing care to produce health and wellbeing for The People.
The gross mistreatment of Black people has been systemic for over 400 years and while steps towards “equality” have been made, they have been too superficial to break down and intervene the barriers that perpetuate these injustices. So intricately woven into America’s system, the construct of racism will only be uprooted by radical and fearless action towards equity. So, what do we do? At the symposium, Dr. Williams outlined seven multi-systemic actions to address racial health disparities.
- Reduce implicit bias
- Provide high-quality, comprehensive healthcare for all
- Foster healthcare that addresses the social context
- Encourage resilience at the policy level
- Act & intervene early on
- Improve economic wellbeing
- Improve neighborhood conditions
Dr. Williams also recognized the societal barriers that keep us from merely beginning the path to these seven conditions, as well as discussed how to dismantle these barriers.
- The majority of Americans do not know that health disparities exist, whether ignorant or indifferent. We must raise awareness.
- Forty-two percent of Americans believe: If Blacks would just work harder, they would do as well as Whites. We must increase empathy.
- Americans have a peculiar indifference—an empathy gap—that is evident as early as seven years old. We must cultivate political will.
For the first time in my life, Dr. Williams’ speech had me telling myself something I’ve always wanted to feel: I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I decided at that moment that every day of my future would be focused on fighting for health equity, especially as it pertains to socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.
This decision led me to discovering an opportunity to work towards a degree in public health in addition to social work. I entered public health with an initial interest in the political realm to work towards health equity through implementation of socially just policies. It didn’t take long for the truth to come out: Policy change only matters if the communities impacted by the policies are those making the decisions. In other words, paving the path for equity at the community level is essential to paving the path at the policy level. Communities who have been impacted by hundreds of years of discriminatory systems are the only people who have the aptitude to effectively eradicate harmful policies and develop effective and equitable policies.
This vision is what brought me to apply for an internship position with the remarkable Denver Food Rescue. After gaining information by word of mouth, conducting my own research, and having a challenging but powerful interview with Christine, I knew my values and mission aligned with that of DFR. With that said, what I have experienced and learned about the organization during just my first few days on board has me filled with unwavering gratitude, respect, and hope.
It is my understanding that DFR doesn’t rescue communities – it rescues food. Happy and healthy food that would otherwise rot away in the dumpster is scooped up and brought to communities that have requested the opportunity to give this food a second chance to be where it was raised to be – in the human body. I emphasize that DFR is a rescuer of food and not of people because this exemplifies how radically it fights for equity. Communities don’t need saving; systems need immediate transforming.
DFR is fearlessly derailing the corrupt systems that attempt to keep certain communities down while allowing certain communities to thrive. Through the No Cost Grocery programs, DFR redistributes healthy foods (80% produce!!!) that heal disease and fuel wellbeing, rather than exclusively providing packaged foods which adversely impact health. Through collaboration, social media, and transparency, DFR continues to raise awareness of inequities, increase empathy across communities, and cultivate greater political will to allow for equitable policy change. DFR elevates the use of food as medicine through its Fruit & Veggie Prescription program. DRF advocates at the policy level for systemic changes that stimulate resiliency for traditionally marginalized communities.
Dr. David R. Williams would be ecstatic to know of the work DFR carries out and how this work is being done. Moving forward, I am eager to let him know of DFR and its vision as I am thrilled to have found a nonprofit carrying out the work that I have firmly believed since November 2018 is the path to health equity.
I encourage readers to view and share Dr. David R. Williams’ Ted Talk focusing on health, racism, and a measure he created to assess implicit bias: