More and more, racism and violence and the toll it takes on black people in the community is being seen as a public health issue, and in that spirit, staff members at the Charlestown MGH Health Center participated in taking a knee as part of White Coats for Black Lives – a sub-movement in the medical community to support Black Lives Matter and bring attention to the health issues systemic racism creates for patients.
Dr. Priya Gupta said she had heard of the idea from other medical professionals and pitched it to the rest of the staff in Charlestown. It was an instant movement and the group took a picture as a symbolic gesture in solidarity with the message.
“As a community health center doctor, we talk a lot about how racism and violence plays into the health of our patients,” said Gupta. “I thought it would be an important statement or advocacy for us to do in our health center for our patients and our community in these times.”
For her co-worker, Medical Assistant Stacy Williams – who is black – said it felt good to see all of her friends and colleagues supporting issues that affect her and her family deeply.
“It felt good to know you have support,” she said. “A lot goes on and I see what happens and go through it. I have three boys and they go through a lot with the police. I have that to live with. I look at that picture we took on Thursday and I know I have support and people want to feel the way I do. The spirit of it meant a lot. It’s a powerful image for me to look at and I appreciate it.”
Medical Director Jim Morrill said the photo – taken last Thursday – was a brief symbolic gesture, but the overall message is that health care needs to change as well as other areas of society.
“This was done to show that we have to understand the problem exists and to show our commitment to work to change,” he said. “We have a commitment to change structural racism and the health care system.”
He said in the medical profession, they view the times as fighting two pandemics – COVID-19 being one, and racism being the other.
“In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen that particular racial and ethnic groups in communities – particularly communities of color – were affected a great deal more than white communities,” he said. “We see that we really have two pandemics. The fight in the communities affected by COVID-19 and the second is we need to train our energies on fighting the other pandemic of racism. That’s what created this unique moment for our hospital.”
Jean Bernhardt, administrative and nurse director at MGH Charlestown, said the last few weeks have been a call to action for the overall MGH network.
“The Hospital has always worked around the idea of advancing equity and diversity and inclusion,” she said. “This has jump-started the understanding of the problem as racism and structural racism. Addressing the problem will help advance the solutions. This is a re-invigoration. It is energizing and invigorating and it’s a call to action.”
While a picture is worth a thousand words, it doesn’t create any action.
Morrill said the picture was just a first step showing they can come together quickly and decisively and in unity. Now they plan to take the action steps along with that to make health care and the fight against structural racism a reality.
Already, they have met internally and have addressed some hard truths about what needs to be done. They are also taking a page from the playbook of the main hospital, which has identified three early steps. They include identifying systemic, structural racism in and outside of the organization; engaging all employees regardless of their role; and using the bully pulpit of MGH for advocacy in communities of color – include the matter of police brutality in those communities.
“There are a lot of discussions going on at the moment,” said Morrill. “We want to take a page from that playbook for the Health Center here and do what we can.”