Happy spring! This April, grassroots organizations, schools and other community-based groups are celebrating both National Minority Health Month and Environmental Justice. This is fitting because physical and ecological health are intertwined, achievable and essential to the sustainable vitality of our communities. However, there are obstacles to personal and community well-being that need to be overcome.
Medical issues such as depression, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and addiction impact Americans of all backgrounds. However, the combined effects of environmental and social policies make communities of color in general—and Black communities in particular—more vulnerable to these preventable chronic illnesses. Racist mortgage lending policies have isolated many African Americans in economically depressed neighborhoods that endure disproportionately high exposure to hazardous waste dumping centers, incinerators, landfills and factory pollution. School segregation and discriminatory hiring practices unfairly channel lower-income African Americans into occupations with higher health risks–if they are able to find jobs at all during this recession.
Regardless of income or educational level, African Americans face prolonged stress due to the various forms of marginalization we experience in institutions like school, the workplace, hospitals, police precincts and mass media. Dr. Chester M. Pierce coined the term microagressions to describe “stunning, often automatic and non-verbal exchanges” which demean people of color and legitimize or obscure the White supremacist nature of certain policies and practices. Additional studies confirm these hostilities also target women, members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities. Microagressions can take the form of actions such as clutching one’s handbag while walking past a Black man or comments like, “I don’t think of you as Black, I just think of you as American,” “No Homo,” or the ever popular “Don’t be so sensitive, it’s just a joke.” Of course, macroaggressions can also be found within institutional structures that consistently exclude and diminish the contributions of people of color.
Many of us—especially youth—take out all the rage, hurt and sadness we understandably feel about the subjugation and emotional trauma we are suffering on ourselves and each other. The ready-to-die chic popularized by talented artists like Kendrick Lamar, Amy Winehouse, Lil’ Wayne, and Rihanna demonstrates how our society romanticizes self-destructive behaviors as honorable badges of rebellion. Unhealthy food, cigarettes, alcohol, weed (and other substances), toxic relationships, violence and compulsive spending are our most popular self-medications. After years of stumbling around in my own nicotine, shopaholic and carbohydrate-filled haze, I realized I embraced these dead-end, short-term solutions to numb the impact of feeling isolated, unwelcome and degraded in a series of familial and educational environments. My struggle to change these coping behaviors is far from over, but I have made the important first step of recognizing that silently enduring unfair treatment and hostility is not a requirement of a successful intimate relationship or career.
In the highly competitive academic, art and nonprofit sectors, our willingness to subjugate ourselves is often seen as a measure of our commitment and dedication to public good. This lionizing of masochism is quite popular within workplaces where lack of job security, inadequate health coverage, abusive communication and unsustainable work schedules are commonplace. Those of us who are working to build a more just society—either as activists, artists, scholars, teachers or allies—often become so overwhelmed we put our health dead last on our list of priorities. Like young rock stars, we have learned to pride ourselves on our ability to forsake sleep, nourishing food and happy personal relationships to achieve short-term organizational or professional goals. We drink and puff away to mask our daily frustrations because we feel fortunate to have jobs. We have come to accept racist hostility and workplace bullying as par for the course.
In reality, living healthy is not a luxury that can be put off until after tenure, school year’s end, that major grant deadline or the next demonstration. Our much-needed contributions are in fact diminished by self-destructive physical and emotional behaviors. In addition, the communities for which we are working cannot fully participate in building a more just society as long as they are grappling with increasingly dangerous health issues and toxic environments. The time to place health equity and environmental justice first is now. We must value ourselves enough to be ready to live.
Activists agree that improving the distribution of decision-making power and health-related resources to communities of color can help African Americans overcome obstacles to wellness. The other good news is that small changes in everyday choices make immediate improvements in personal well-being. This month, let’s begin a wellness revolution by doing a bit of spring cleaning and taking three simple steps toward supporting health equity and environmental justice.
1) Spring Cleaning for Stress Relief
Get in with the new and out with the unhelpful. Which one or two healthy habits do you already have that you’d like to do more of or that you’d like to try incorporating into your lifestyle? Make a date with yourself or a few friends to try something new this month. Here are some tips about how to start running, try yoga or find a licensed massage therapist in your area.
On the other hand, what are one or two unhealthy behaviors you are ready to get rid of? Treating ourselves badly causes a great deal of stress and diverts our attention and resources from the things in life that matter most to us. Here are some tips about how to quitting smoking, get help for alcohol and substance abuse and learn more about intimate partner violence.
I suggest focusing on expanding or beginning a new healthy habit first because it clears your mind and strengthens your confidence, which makes shedding unhelpful actions easier.
2) Demand More Resources for Health Care and Health Initiatives
Help organizations like the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Disease Control fight back against budget cuts that will endanger effective community-based health programs.
If you would like to see more federal funding spent on African American health, you can contact your local congressperson this month and ask them to support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act and a clean budget, balanced deficit reduction and appropriations funding for programs supporting Women and Families.
In addition express your concern about the recent $85 million reduction of the Department of the Health and Human Services’s budget and how it will impact the Center for Disease Control’s REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health Program).
3) Support Your Local Environmental Justice Group
The international environmental justice movement has been working to build healthy communities of color and challenge public policies that undermine economic, cultural and physical well-being. Local groups such as the Harlem-based WE ACT and San Francisco’s Literacy for Environmental Justice are taking grassroots action. This month, find an environmental justice group working for your health and support their work.
Remember, the key to staying with change is to make a reasonable plan that is flexible enough to adjust when it’s needed. Resolving to make healthier choices should not create occasions for you have negative feelings about yourself. Take it step by step, day by day.
Throughout April, contributors to the Progressive Pupil blog will highlight dedicated activists, artists and educators who are making a difference by fighting for health equity and environmental justice in Black communities. How do you plan on celebrating health and environmental awareness? What kinds of changes would you like to see at your school or workplace that would promote healthy living? Share them with us in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter.
Yours in Solidarity,