Notes from the field as a White racial equity facilitator and trainer, or what the heck I do every day

September 18, 2015 4 Comments

These three moments with these three individuals in recent months have stuck with me. Each of them is part of a multicultural group of folks working to integrate racial equity in their work – whether it be for youth in the juvenile justice system, for children and adults to get quality and affordable dental health care, or for people with HIV. They got me reflecting about what it takes to move racial equity work forward in multiracial, mostly white, collaboratives and institutions. And about how much I love the challenge of moving this work forward in settings where talking about race and racism is NOT the norm.

“I was taught not to say the word ‘white’ in front of white people; you’re the first white person I’ve heard talk about being white and challenging racism.”
— Youth activist (Native woman) in New Mexico

Sometimes I forget how out of the ordinary it is just to name “white” as a racial category. I was reminded that the simple act of naming myself as white and describing some of my life experiences of waking up to what it means to be white, learning (by trial and many errors) how to be an ally to people of color I work with and care about, is the kind of modeling I need to do even more of. Naming these realities with courage and humility is something that many more of us white folk need to get more comfortable with. Look, some of my stories are embarrassing to tell, but we need to tell those stories if we are going to create a stronger culture of learning from failure and of diminishing the harmful effects of white fragility. We can’t be effective contributors to multiracial movements for collective liberation otherwise.

“I still don’t see what racism has got to do with oral health. Can you explain what you mean?”
— Retired dentist (White man) in Pennsylvania

What was wonderful to me about this conversation was that this gentleman approached me with his genuine question over wine after I had introduced the idea earlier in the day that a national network working to eradicate dental disease in children must account for racism and classism. While he wasn’t sure he understood or agreed with what I had said, he approached me with curiosity rather than shutting down or dismissing the idea (and me). I reminded him of the data. While 77% of all children in the U.S. reach age 5 without a cavity, 88% of middle and upper class White children reach age 5 without a cavity, 65% of poor White children, 50% of African American children and only 20% of American Indian children do. We have to ask WHY this is so and pursue strategies that will eliminate these inequities if we are going to eradicate dental disease for ALL children rather than just those who are white and/or middle and upper class.

“I thought conversations about racism, homophobia, transphobia in our agency were going to explode and instead they went well. This process helped me to see that while the isms are overwhelming, there are concrete things we can do.”
– Health agency administrator (Latino man) in Louisiana

This was my first opportunity to support health agencies in the South figure out how to address racism. But they didn’t stop there. These folks are also working to address homophobia and transphobia. Wow! I have not heard of a commitment like this at any agency or non-profit in the North that is not extremely Left and/or grassroots. So these folks are bad ass and it was an honor to support them. Let me just say a few things that I’m learning are true in the South, and also in the North:

  1. People have astonishingly low levels of skill and experience saying the words racism or homophobia or transphobia in multicultural and professional settings.
  2. Trans women of color walking into health agencies are met with disdainful stares and snickering insults; non-trans women of color walking into health agencies are met with assumptions from health professionals that they must be poor and single and ignorant about how to stay healthy; all of this is heartbreaking and none of it is ok.
  3. There are brilliant people who have jobs in social services and yet their institutions aren’t set up in ways that facilitate their creativity and wisdom to shine
  4. There are a few institutions led by and for Black folks that are doing incredible work to care for their own communities, treating each individual as a whole and important being worthy of the best care. These institutions should be held up as models and the rest of us should be taking their lead.
  5. When given a few guide rails for how to move a collaborative process forward toward action steps that will lead to greater racial equity, people can go far together from where before they were stuck (this is basically what we specialize in at IISC!).

TalkingAboutRacism_IThought_v1 TalkingAboutRacism_IWasTaught_v1 TalkingAboutRacism_IStillDontSee_v1

Update (3 June 2016): The original image at the top of this post has mis-attributed quotations. They have been revised to be associated with the proper speaker.


  • Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! I also appreciated you sharing some data (the dental health numbers broken down by race). FYI, there’s a typo in your link. Also, I didn’t see the numbers you cited in the link you shared. Perhaps you meant to point to something different? In any case, would love to see the correct pointer to the data. Thank you!

    • Jen Willsea says:

      Hi Eugene! The best source for this oral health data is: NCHS Data Brief ■ No. 191 ■ March 2015, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Dental Caries and Sealant Prevalence in Children and, Adolescents in the United States, 2011–2012
      Bruce A. Dye, D.D.S., M.P.H.; Gina Thornton-Evans, D.D.S, M.P.H.;
      Xianfen Li, M.S.; and Timothy J. Iafolla, D.M.D., M.P.H.

  • chad says:

    Yes and thank you. 3 poignant quotes that serve as gateways into recurring thoughts that you’ve had. You divulge some of the ways of a facilitator that linger long after you’ve finished working with a group. The list at the bottom, to me, reads as Five Truths on the South (& North). And, thank you for getting to flyover country!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *