Many Faces of the Symposium

The Many Faces of the Symposium: The Connection Between Race and Health


Just more than a month ago, we closed the books on our Colorado Health Symposium. At the event, we dug into inequity, with a special focus on racial inequity and racism, all of which prevents people from leading their healthiest lives.

We received feedback onsite and afterward through an evaluation survey. As I’m taking in all of the feedback, I thought it was important to share what we’ve heard because all feedback we receive is a gift that helps us to improve our work.

Those comments, not surprisingly, revealed many perspectives on inequity and what people took away from the conversation. Though more than 600 of us attended the same event, there were widely varying experiences. Lots of people were delighted that the Foundation took the opportunity to focus on inequity. Others felt that we focused too much on racism, and that it is not relevant to health or health policy in the 21st century. Some felt invigorated by the opportunity to have a voice, while others shared frustration that their voice - or that of a population they belong to - was absent or muted, such as the Latino community. Here’s a sampling of the comments:

Justice is a rising tide. When you think about the tide coming in, it starts at the very bottom and begins to raise up all the ships. Those at the bottom begin to rise first. However, no ship is left behind. It is the same with justice.”

“I was disappointed to have so little health care policy and financing information addressed … given the monumental policy shifts around health care access and financing and all of the activity at the state and federal levels that directly impact health access and equity, I expected to see a lot more than one afternoon session about current policy events.”

Health is our neighborhoods, parks, food sources, education, recreation opportunities, safety, community support. . . and the list goes on. We are only as healthy as our neighbors, so let's keep lifting each other up and addressing root causes.”

 “It was enlightening to hear the perspective of the African American community, but that perspective is not necessarily the same as the Hispanic perspective.”

“I am disappointed to hear and feel the racial divide, here of all places. To see the bias towards me, even though I am here to fight inequity, is very disappointing and disheartening.”

“Thank you for having the bravery to tackle inequity and the role that race and status plays in health.”

We do not see these diverse comments and set of experiences as inconsistent with one another. Rather, the disagreement is a starting point. And it’s exactly what we hoped to provoke, instill and generate. This year’s Symposium was designed to get people feeling more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, relating to aspects of inequity and discussing them openly. While we designed the program around multiple inequities that influence Coloradan’s health – such as geographic disparity, immigration, the shifting demographics of our country and LGBT rights – the discourse did gravitate towards racism. Why? Race is directly connected and correlated to our physical and mental health. Systemic, structural and historic racism prevents some Coloradans from reaching their highest level of health. If we can’t simply talk about that fact, we’re in trouble.

The Symposium is one of our most valuable vehicles to educate and learn more about complicated subjects. As the event hosts, we believe that a conversation about racism is also a conversation about health – the health of us all. We believe building the bridges to health start at the point of conversation – within discourse that can, at times, feel uncomfortable.

The important and valuable criticism we received from attendees at our Symposium reflect the urgent need for even more open dialogue. The positive feedback does, too. The discomfort and the racial tensions in Charlottesville, and renewed discussion of racial legacies in the United States, make these conversations more crucial than ever.

In answering why the event shifted away from “health,” my answer is clear: We didn’t shift away from health. We centered on it directly. The only way to bring health in reach for all Coloradans is to close equity gaps. That starts with an intentional focus on race. We realize that racism is more than a black and white issue, as was compellingly demonstrated by our speakers on implicit bias, as well as other speakers who spoke of the atrocities of racism against Native Americans and undocumented immigrants.   

Clearly there is much work and learning to do. That work starts at the front door of the Foundation. It is incumbent upon us to link the national and state data to the lived experiences of the Coloradans to whom we are in service. It means we have to be willing to hear some uncomfortable truths from families and communities about how we’ve approached our work and whether we’ve assisted, hindered or simply missed the mark in supporting their quest to lead healthy lives. We must have the courage to ask and deeply listen to the nonprofit community to understand if they experience us as operating with implicit biases.

In the coming year, the Foundation will continue to elevate these issues through as many venues and channels as we can. Our work will take us and others more deeply into specific social determinants of health and other key drivers that are preventing so many from so much.

We hope to find opportunities to address the gaps that people felt at this year’s Symposium, such as reflecting the Latino voice and addressing rural white poverty. We pledge to do our part to listen, work in the community and stay focused on our charge as an organization. But we will not relent when it comes to talking about the most important drivers of our health and inequity as humans. We hope you don’t either, and we hope that you will continue to provide us with your feedback as our learning journey continues.

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