By Michelle Merriweather, President/CEO, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle
After a year of anxiety, loss, fear, and isolation, it seems clear that light is on the way. At Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, we hear this in the stories of community members who say they can finally visit their 90-year-old father or travel the country or see their newborn niece. Those who say, “I am getting the vaccine because I have family in other countries who cannot, and they tell me how lucky I am to have the option.” We hear the joy when people say “Finally, I can go outside without fear,” and “For the first time in a year, I can hug my grandchild.” For many, the vaccines are something to rejoice about. They are a symbol of hope and our best shot at a return to normalcy and recovery.
We also hear the opposite. The legitimate fear, frustration, and mistrust in the healthcare system that causes many to avoid the doctor at all costs. We hear stories about sub-par treatment, discrimination, and disregard about our pain. We know the historic medical racism: Tuskegee Experiment, Henrietta Lacks, medical experimentation on enslaved individuals, among other atrocities. All of this, and more, contribute to the place where we are now, many in our community lacking the confidence that health care establishments have their best interest at heart. The systemic racism in healthcare and the harm it has caused communities of color over centuries, will not be undone overnight. It will take empathy, intentionality, and action.
Something we learn every day at Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle is that hesitancy does not guarantee refusal. We see individuals move from “There is no way I am getting that vaccine,” to “Actually… will you sign me up for an appointment?” within one conversation sometimes. We also see many who are open to the vaccine but need time to think about it or get it. Some choose not to for any number of reasons, whether it is accessibility concerns, or systemic barriers that do not allow them the flexibility or support to get vaccinated. Whatever the case is, each person must be met with dignity and respect.
We are not trying to convince anyone to do something they do not want to do. We want to be a resource for community, as we have been for 90 years. In our efforts to empower and educate, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle holds focus groups, inviting Black medical professionals and public health experts to share information and have transparent dialogue with us. We also host pop-up clinics in familiar locations with providers who look like us or are understanding of the unique needs of our community. Our team, led by our Health Advocate and supported by Black professionals in our community, create educational materials and ensure they are accessible and in culturally relevant terms. We are also training Peer Educators to be trusted messengers in community. What is clear throughout all of this is that information sharing must be for us, by us.
There is momentum right now. There is heightened regard for Black health. Now, we must ensure that this is not only a moment. We must look at the root causes of why Black communities were hit so hard by this pandemic. We need to address health disparities and inequities where we live, learn, work, and play that lead to lower life expectancies and higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and other conditions. We need policies to change. We need systems to change. We need to be at the table where decisions that impact our health are made. We need to see that Black health matters all the time, not only when there is a pandemic. Every day, our lives matter, and we need to see continued action that aligns with that fundamental truth.
To make this moment a movement, here are some ways you can help: seek out credible sources; educate yourself and others about the vaccine; get involved as a Peer Educator in your community; and volunteer with and/or donate to local organizations doing this work; speak out about racism as a public health crisis.
For more information about the vaccine, visit www.urbanleague.org/black-health-matters.