Director of Programs, Youth Empowered Solutions
Nine years ago, a black mother had her first child more than three weeks too soon after experiencing what would generally be considered a healthy pregnancy. More than three years later her second child was delivered four weeks too soon, making both babies born preterm. Each time the mother asked the pediatrician, “What could have caused these early deliveries?” The response each time included statements like, “We do not fully understand why some women experience preterm births, but we know that it is more common among African American women.” Statements like this devoid of any context or explanation left the new mom wondering why? Why were her babies and more importantly why are our community’s black babies more often born too soon? That new mom was me. The seriousness of this experience was heightened by the fact that it is during the final weeks of pregnancy that a baby’s brain, lungs, and liver fully develop. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), babies born too soon are at increased risk of breathing problems, feeding difficulties, and other developmental delays.
Having studied and practiced public health for a few years prior to becoming a mom, I at least had the opportunity to understand some of the context of this issue and try to make sense of it. There are many factors that are associated with preterm birth. Several of these factors are strategy areas that Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) leads in policy, system, and environmental changes. These factors include alcohol and tobacco use and lack of access to healthy foods and access to affordable health care. I could not check the boxes for these behavioral and economic factors nor others related to medical conditions. However, the one social determinant I could check that is at the top of every risk factor list for preterm birth is being black. According to the March of Dimes, black women have a preterm birth rate about 50 percent higher than the rate among white women. In the United States, the risk of premature delivery is three times greater among black women compared to white women.
However, knowing these facts still doesn’t provide the context and history about why blacks and people of color tend to experience patterns of worse outcomes than whites across sectors of life. Addressing this persistent issue requires understanding the underlying root causes that lead to inequities we see in areas such as health, housing, education, and the criminal justice system to name a few. Racism is a fundamental root cause that must be named, analyzed, and undone to realize sustainable changes in our society. We know this because biologically it is not being born black or a person of color that causes unfair differences in outcomes. In fact, race is a social construct that has no biological basis to predict these differences. Rather, it is being born into a system in this country “founded” on racism that has amassed advantages for whites and oppressed marginalized groups that impacts all of us and leads to racial inequities.
At YES! we know that examining root causes is critical to social justice work and creating sustainable change that prevents problems and does not solely treat symptoms. Whether the issue is food access, tobacco use, or in my case birth outcomes, root causes, particularly racism, impact all of these. Today’s current events such as Charlottesville and backlash against peaceful protests for racial justice are propelling discussions of racism into mainstream media. We have an opportunity and responsibility to name structural racism along with all other “isms” and elevate our work for racial equity because young people and people of color are dying too soon and the lost potential saps opportunity from us all.
The YES! founders understood that racial equity was a key element to social justice and that youth empowerment without a racial equity approach wouldn’t work. Therefore, equity is embedded in our trainings and our values as an organization. As we grow and embark on a process to further build our equity capacity, we’ll be examining racial equity more explicitly and taking steps to enhance our service delivery and operations through a racial equity lens. To begin this journey, YES! partnered with Open Source Leadership Strategies (OSLS) to provide facilitated planning, staff training, building a racial equity framework and follow-up implementation meetings to ensure the framework is instituted from organizational design. In August, we formed an Equity Leadership Team including youth and adult staff and board members to help guide and champion this process. In September, together as staff and board members, we participated in Leading for Racial Equity training facilitated by OSLS trainers Kathleen Crabbs and Sterling Freeman. The training is just one of several tools that OSLS will facilitate to help us advance change in racial equity that aligns with our mission and enhances our youth empowerment work.
Caroline, Raleigh Youth Staff member, is a part of the YES! Equity Leadership Team and helped plan for the training. After the equity training Caroline said, “Last Saturday, YES! as an organization took an enormous leap towards a genuine commitment to equity work, specifically racial equity. Together, board members and staff were exposed to an unprecedented space devoted to difficult conversations surrounding race and ethnicity. I am both inspired and motivated to pursue the health initiative with the intent of prioritizing the issue of race. There is power behind board members and staff alike recognizing our organizational flaws and taking the initiative towards rebranding a more authentic, equitable YES!.”
With a number of new hires like me on board, YES! is taking up the charge to advance and operationalize racial equity during a time of organizational change. Next year marks our 10-year anniversary and is a time for celebration, reflection and acknowledgement of those who paved the way for us. You’ll see the commitment to racial equity in our communications and the theme of change as we commemorate 10 years of success.
In that theme, here are 10 reasons why for us at YES!, doing this work without a racial equity approach simply won’t work:
1. Our mission depends on it. YES!’s mission is to empower youth, in partnership with adults, to create community change. In her profound allegories on race and racism, Dr. Camara P. Jones states that “racism saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.” Our potential to create community change is significantly decreased when young lives are being unjustly cut short and not allowed to fulfill their optimal health and safety. Our training reinforced that racial equity means improved outcomes for all not predicted by race and that communities are more likely to thrive in an equitable society.
2. Power is not balanced. At YES! we know that young people under the age of 18 make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, yet their potential as a generation to contribute to a better society is systematically ignored. Racism operates in a way that maintains the same unjust power structure that suppresses youth voices. For youth of color, this issue is magnified by the fact that the racial composition of government and non-profit leadership too often does not reflect the communities they are elected or appointed to serve. Empowering youth of color and addressing structural racism elevates the voices of marginalized communities and helps us begin to realize a more balanced power structure.
3. Economic factors are correlated to race because of structural racism. Our social justice work at YES! is also keenly focused on addressing economic factors that lead to inequities in under-resourced communities. We know that lower income communities experience the worse outcomes in health and other areas. Due to structural racism and many long lasting historical factors, race is connected to patterns of income and the ability to build wealth. A new infographic created by Living Cities illustrates how racism impacts people of color across generations economically on a daily basis. For example, 50% of students of color are in high poverty schools and 10% of whites are. Both historical and current day institutional policies such as redlining and gentrification created and perpetuate this racial gap and must be a part of our understanding of how we achieve equity.
4. Economic factors do not explain all inequities. As previously discussed, addressing economic inequities among all populations is essential to our work. However, socio-economic factors like income and education do not always tell the whole story. For example, I could see my personal story in the California Newsreel Documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? When the Bough Breaks. Data shows that African American mothers with a college degree have worse birth outcomes than white mothers without a high school education. But why? Researchers in the documentary propose that racism is a chronic everyday stressor for people of color that over time can cause a build-up in organ damage and anxiety that leads to premature births. Symptoms of racism such as unequal treatment, microaggressions, and internalized oppression really are things that are making us sick. Applying a racial equity lens will help us to recognize these symptoms and address the root cause.
5. Racial equity facilitates youth equity. At YES! we know that our nation is suffering economically, creatively and civilly as a result of youth leadership being systematically ignored. The solution is empowering young people to participate in effective youth-adult partnerships, which is a proven, replicable approach to solving community problems. Racial equity will help facilitate youth equity by undoing power structures that routinely leave out youth voices and voices of communities of color.
6. Intersectionality. A concept coined nearly 30 years ago by law professor Kimberle’ Crenshaw, intersectionality helps us see how social justice issues like racism and sexism are often overlapping at multiple levels. Think of all the ways that being a person of color, a young person, a person with a disability, and transgender today can create unjust challenges that are not overcome by solutions focused in isolation on a single facet of life. Our solutions must be broad enough to address social injustices in multiple forms because youth are diverse and increasingly multifaceted.
7. Youth demand it. Youth today are connected more than any other generation to what is happening around the world. Today’s youth have had access to global news and information at their fingertips for most of their lives. There is an undeniable connection to social justice and racial equity that has propelled current day movements for change. From the civil rights movement to now, youth and students have been leaders for community change throughout history. Forming effective youth and adult partnerships across the country that promote racial equity is an additional key to our success as a nation in the face of hate and injustice. YES! Youth staff are already challenging us as an organization to do more.
8. Youth are experiencing “death by racism.” We are fortunate to have thinkers and strategists like Gita Gulati-Partee, Founder and Chief Strategist of Open Source Leadership Strategies, helping YES! to build our capacity for racial equity across the organization. In her TEDx Talk, Leading for Equity, Gita describes how death by racism does not just occur at the hands of white supremacists, but more often within a system that sanctions violence like allowing youth to drink water contaminated with lead. The good news is that Leading for Equity can help save lives and help youth reach their full potential.
9. It is urgent. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and in other subsequent messages about the “fierce urgency of now.” Dr. King said, “there is such a thing as being too late” and that “this is a time for vigorous and positive action.” Those words are just as true now as they were more than 50 years ago given the gravity of the current situation and that death by racism is occurring all too often. Youth feel a sense of urgency to take on racial equity more explicitly. YES! has the opportunity to act.
10. To enhance our model. There are so many reasons why it is important to end racism and lead for equity. Two of my many reasons are Jalen and Bryson, my thriving black boys who were once born too soon. Like Dr. King, I dream of a world where they are valued first for who they are as people and not judged to their detriment by the color of their skin. Ending racism requires valuing the lives of the oppressed, acknowledging unfair advantages we have as individuals, and choosing to act. Achieving the level of impact we want together with communities that need it the most means sharpening our focus on racial equity. At YES! we agree that it is important to uproot structural racism and we are taking steps to act because every youth and adult life has value. We can embed racial equity in our youth empowerment model by increasing opportunities, skill development, and critical awareness for youth of color and around structures that perpetuate inequities. Approaching our work through a racial equity lens does not abandon our youth empowerment model, but only does more to enhance it.