Massachusetts General Hospital staff had the opportunity to take part in three virtual celebrations to honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and illuminate his goals of racial equity and justice. Leaders—including Carla Carten, executive director of the Mass General Brigham Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Peter L. Slavin, MD, Mass General president, and Anne Klibanski, MD, president and CEO of Mass General Brigham—reflected on King’s emphasis on equity in health care as a racial justice issue. They affirmed the Mass General Brigham system’s commitment to advance the progress on the journey to becoming an anti-racist organization. Featured speakers at each event elaborated on this theme.
“I am proud of the tradition we’ve created with this event that brings colleagues from across our system as well as from across the region who are committed to building stronger and more equitable communities together,” said Klibanski.
On January 19, the featured keynote speaker was Diane B. Patrick, former First Lady of Massachusetts, who is a Mass General Brigham Board of Trustee and chair of Mass General Brigham’s United Against Racism Task Force.
Patrick said that today the “promised land” of King’s famous mountaintop address may seem ever more unreachable. In response to the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6 claiming they wanted to take back “our” country, she asked, “Whose country is it?” The United States, she reminded, was stolen from Natives and built with enslaved labor. She recounted that for much of American history, federal and local laws pushed Black people into poverty and kept them from education, and as a result, Americans of all races began to believe that Black people were inferior. She recalled her mixed-race father encouraging her to respond “American” when people asked about her race. Patrick said every person has an active role to play in dismantling injustice, and that it’s not enough to attend seminars or donate money to good causes, but we need to call out racism. She also encouraged the audience to continue to hold Mass General Brigham leadership accountable, saying that as a leader in health care, it is imperative that the system be a leader in health equity.
The Mass General Association of Multicultural Members of Partners (AAMP) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gospel Celebration on January 22 included two poems performed by Kavon Ward, a nationally recognized spoken word artist. The keynote speaker was Gerly Adrien, integrated grants administrator at Mass Eye and Ear, who is Haitian American and the first Black woman to be city councilor in Everett. In her address, “Shattering the Glass Ceiling,” Adrien spoke about her role and said she has been vocal against criminalization of homelessness, worked to keep pre-kindergarten education free, pushed for equity in virtual learning during the pandemic, created and funded Black history month scholarships, and held a listening tour for constituents.
The 2021 AMMP Diversity Champion Award recipient also was announced during the breakfast. This year’s award went to Josue Espinoza, administrative manager in the Mass General Transgender Health Program, for his exceptional efforts championing and advocating for equal participation of diverse professionals and support staff within our hospital community.
The observance on January 27 featured Michael Curry, Esq., president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. During his “Quantum Leap: The Unmasking of America’s Challenge with Anti-Black Racism,” presentation, he said he has spoken with many people who were shocked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, many who said they didn’t understand how we got to this point in history.
Curry’s presentation touched on the health effects of slavery, painful experiments on enslaved subjects, the health effects of mass incarceration, and the fact that chronic food and housing insecurity had similar effects during the 1918 pandemic as the effects on the coronavirus pandemic today.
“You were robbed of this history,” he said, asserting that the failure to teach these elements alongside the rest of the country’s history fails everyone, regardless of race.
“I want you to understand that we have repositioned Americans all the time. There was the Homestead Act, the Southern Homestead Act, there was the New Deal. Too big to fail. Bail out Wall Street, the airline industry. But we’ve never followed through with bailing out former slaves. And we reneged on every opportunity we’ve had in history to reposition a people. That’s the racial reckoning we’re in now.”
Curry noted that Black people are 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police. He reminded the audience that the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, both directly and through events that impact health, such as evictions, layoffs and cuts to services. Curry concluded by urging everyone to get the coronavirus vaccine as soon as they are able, and to trust the science backing it.
“What your presentation reminded me of—and I’m sure all of us—is that our work here isn’t done, and that our freedom and our democracy, if we didn’t realize it before, we know as of January 6 (attacks on the U.S. Capitol) is that all of this is very fragile,” says Wanda McClain, MPA, vice president of Community Health and Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.