Antiracism and inclusion
Adrianne Wagner, MHSA, FACHE, Regional VP for Quality and Patient Safety Optum Pacific Northwest
Racial equity was never supposed to be a headline of my career. What has become so all-encompassing started off in 2019 as a small project for a community cohort, Leadership for Racial Equity.
I was challenged to build a strategy to address inequities within our own locus of control. The outcome we hoped for? A traditional training spearheaded by a 12-person committee within The Everett Clinic; we called ourselves the “Implicit Bias Taskforce.”
Our timing, coinciding with America’s budding reckoning with systemic race-based hatred and oppression, has brought immense opportunity to our door.
Very quickly Optum saw the value in the work we had laid out and invited us to join them to align and create a national strategy. The chance to seed a desperately needed change has been great.
I chose racial equity for reasons that were very personal to me. I am an Asian American woman (half-Chinese, if we’re being technical) raised in Flint, Michigan. Race, ethnicity and economic differences were present in everyday life where I grew up—even on the “whiter,” east side of town.
Now raising my own family in the Pacific Northwest where our demographics let us feel safe on issues more hotly felt by very diverse communities, I felt it was important to shine light on the problems that are present here as well. Unconscious bias, microaggressions and the myth of colorblindness are a few.
For the same reason that I initially went after work in racial justice, I am subject to the exhaustion of fighting this fight. It can be so personal. It matters so much to me.
I see my colleagues who are people of color engaged in the same way I am: we have the chance to make changes to our world, to begin to right wrongs, to bring awareness to where there was ignorance.
And that opportunity for me, as for many of the doctors I’ve worked with is so great we feel we must keep working at it. Often, we do this at the risk of lost sleep and weathered mental health.
How am I?
I’m doing moderately okay. I have felt a lot of love and support over the last weeks since the mass shooting of Asian women in Atlanta in particular. The toll of the Coronavirus, having kids at home, many other family and human things going on is exacting.
But this work is both exhausting and fulfilling. It fills my cup in a way that I feel purpose: I have a voice and people are listening to me in a meaningful way.
As a non-white person I often feel that the world is looking to those of us victimized by racism to share the experience of our trauma to help them understand what we mean, then asking us to come up with its solutions as well. This is not a viable strategy, for reasons that should be self-evident.
Some of my best and biggest supporters are physicians. They check in on me after a dramatic email or maybe about a cry I had in the parking lot.
Part of the challenge of a large organization is creating the feeling of connection. Being open and transparent and checking in about what is happening in the world is an opportunity to connect and remove barriers between us.
Being anti-racist requires admitting that we are not perfect. Racial justice issues need to be aired and talked about more in order to cultivate greater understanding.
This means overcoming fear and risking exposure to “not knowing the right thing to say.” Awkwardness is part of the cost of admission to anti-racist work.
The first steps in supporting those affected by systemic racism is to accept that you can never fully understand what these people are going through.
The effort should be towards believing people, having faith and not requiring proof or understanding to know that their experiences are real. Acknowledge that perspectives and different experiences exist and hold space.
To keep making progress, it’s important to grow allyship in anti-racism. To be an anti-racist ally is to use some of the privilege given to you by accident of birth to meet the needs of those who did not get the same privilege.
The path ahead
For me, the overwhelming feeling that there is so much to do is tempered by how I can see things changing. I will continue to do this work because, frankly, it is too important to be left undone.
It’s heartening to see that each time I put my shoulder to this boulder and begin pushing it up the hill again, there are more and more people by my side. The companionship and encouragement of others keeps me going.
If I kept pushing the rock up the hill over and over and over on my own and found there was no one here to help me, I would give up. But I keep pushing it up the hill and, more and more often, find new people working to take the weight with me.