The American Heart Association’s June 2018 Northeast Health Equity Consortium brought together medical professionals, public health experts and community leaders to examine health equity in our diverse communities. Nearly 150 people attended from the northeast and across the country. Their commitment to equity in health care was evident by their attendance and enthusiastic participation in the summit.

Summit Chair, Marcus M. McKinney, D. Min., LPC, said that a key goal of the AHA’s Northeast Health Equity Consortium “is to move us from what we do, from research to action—by developing and disseminating approaches for improving quality and identifying and addressing all disparities in health care regionally, and locally. Our solutions must be local and relevant…informed by our remarkably diverse communities…to move closer toward achieving equity in health in every neighborhood.” The summit was the first of its kind hosted by the Founders Affiliate American Heart Association to bring together community partners to discuss and collaborate with the intention of achieving health equity.

What is healthy equity?

One of the American Heart Association’s top priorities is ensuring that all Americans have access to healthcare and lifesaving information that can prevent heart disease and stroke. That’s why the AHA often talks about eliminating health disparities and creating health equity.

Health disparities are differences in health that are closely linked with social or economic disadvantage. And health equity is the opposite of this, when all Americans have the same opportunity to improve their health and avoid deadly diseases.

Health disparities can be connected to race, ethnicity, gender or several other factors and can stem from disadvantages such as poverty, inadequate health care access and educational inequalities.

The most disadvantaged in society often have the greatest need for preventive screenings and other health programs but have the least access to them. The Summit addressed access from many sides.

How do you fix a problem some people don’t admit exists?

Brian C.B. Barnes, Ed.L.D, M.Div., Ed. M, the morning keynote, is CEO of TandemEd, an entity that supports African-American communities to lead their own strategies and actions for social change in tandem with courageous institutions. With a breadth of experience spanning education, healthcare, faith, and community-based outreach, Barnes asked the audience to consider their “blind spots” about race and prejudice, and to acknowledge the painful truths that despite progress made over the years, people, organizations, social structures and systems still have bias. And that creates and sustains inequity. To tackle the problem, Barnes said to get hyper-local.

Whether it’s housing, employment, safety, food access, healthcare—beneath all of it is a structure of racism that must be acknowledged, he said. “How does knowing racism exists affect our work?”

He encouraged Summit attendees to get behind local community leaders. “I’m not talking about the ones in photo opps who stand behind city officials in press conferences. I’m talking about the leaders who are on the ground. The ones who get slandered because they seem to be too revolutionary at times. The ones who, at the end of the day, all they’re doing is caring about their families like any other person does in communities in this country.”

“Are you willing to be the next disruptors?” he asked, “even if you are benefitting from the status quo?”

It is a common mistake, he said, for large organizations to come into a community and pronounce they have the boxed solution ready to fix the woes of that community. But, he warned, solutions are not one size fits all. He urged people to get to know community leaders and learn about their existing programs. To come in with humility and listen, acknowledging that those community leaders and groups have already been working for the cause for health equity.

“Close your eyes, and think about your city, and imagine that there are people, that you are not aware of, who are working day to day to build health awareness amongst their communities. I want you to see them and recognize they have legitimacy, the right message, and relationships. They might not have all of the resources, infrastructure and marketing capabilities that you have. But they have the ability to influence and engage and lead folks in a way that these organizations that are in health and education that are led, governed and staffed by people outside those communities would never be able to do.”

“Answer these questions: is there a way to echo and affirm the voices already leading in health in your local context. Or is the only option for the messaging, and the slogans and initiatives to come from you? Is there a way to publicly promote a narrative that these communities are the true leaders and they are moving to rally toward health? Or is the only option for you to join collective impact initiatives that already exist or start new ones that are represented by organizations that are staffed, governed and led by people outside the community? Is there a way to authentically listen to what these communities have to say before you make your strategy and agenda? Or is the only option to come to these listening sessions already with the plan together but just to get the checkmark that we’ve done the community engagement when we unroll our plan?”

He remembered his high school basketball days as a shooting guard, and his father’s rare criticism of his play during one game, “I had a bad habit of, when the defensive press came, I would dribble right into the trap. I would put my head down and dribble down the sideline and inevitably, I would find myself in the trap. My dad said, ‘Brian, why do you continue to put your head down and dribble alone into these traps? Why don’t you look up and see that you have other teammates that you can pass to that will help you get the ball down the court to start your play?’

“Now as I watch the game of health institutions, it is clear that we have not seen the results we want. Yet it seems that we continue to put our heads down within our organizations and look for solutions only within. I can hear my dad’s voice echoing saying, ‘Why don’t we look up’ and see that the other critical players of the community who have the strength and the experience that goes beyond our skill and even our authority. Why do we work as a point guard trying to break the press of social inequity by dribbling alone and into the trap of low impact? Why don’t we look up and pass the ball to the critical teammates? Why don’t we look up with courage? Be the disruptive innovators…disrupt the status quo, look up with boldness,” he said.

He closed by asking leaders to take great social risk, look up with justice, embrace the tough work of adapted leadership and absorb the struggle of progress. “It is at that point you can progress to a newfound place of health equity and transformation all the while keeping the black in the community’s voice. And ensure there is power and health wherever there are people.”

“I believe that at the core of health equity is the belief that quality health and great health is a key right of all individuals regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and that investments need to be made to make sure that is taken care of,” he said, “My work with the American Heart Association has been ongoing. I believe that the AHA can continue to invest in a public narrative that it’s important to affirm the leadership of the communities in strengthening their own health, as it also does its own programs and initiatives,” he said.

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