To Close the Racial Health Gap, Philanthropy Must Itself Prioritize Wellness

This article, co-authored by Shawn Dove and Dr. Phyllis Hubbard, also appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

In December 2009, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA)  convened a cross-section of leaders working to improve life outcomes of black men and boys at a leadership retreat that included a session focused on strategies for healing and self-empowerment for leaders in the Black Male Achievement (BMA) field. At the time, the BMA field was still relatively new, having been launched by CBMA at the Open Society Foundations in June 2008. What the workshop revealed was both astounding and urgent: that the very leaders working vigilantly to support black men and boys in their communities were themselves in dire need of support and information with respect to how they addressed the myriad health and lifestyle challenges they, and an alarmingly large number of African Americans, face.

Then, in 2014, the BMA movement was dealt a tragic blow with the news that BMe Community leader Dr. Shawn White, a renowned academic working on public health matters, had died suddenly at the age of 42 of a stress-triggered seizure due to complications from severe hypertension, a preventable disease. There was and remains little doubt that the high levels of stress associated with doing racial equity work was a critical factor in the kinds of health issues faced by leaders such as Dr. White. There is also little doubt about how these issues are exacerbated by the insidious effects of interpersonal and institutional racism — psychological, physical, and emotional — on black people and communities.

The learnings that came out of that retreat nearly a decade ago have been given new life with the release of a report issued last week by National Public Radio, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Titled Discrimination in America: Experiences and Views of African Americans, the report addresses the various types of individual and systemic discrimination that black Americans experience in a variety of arenas, including employment, buying a home, interactions with law enforcement, civic engagement, and access to health care. In each of these areas, African Americans reported frequent and consistent encounters with race-based discrimination — a finding that spans gender, education, political affiliation, geography, and socioeconomic status.

Among its most noteworthy discoveries, the report revealed that roughly a third of black Americans have felt they were discriminated against when seeking medical care from a doctor or health clinic. Equally disturbing is the finding that 22 percent of black respondents admitted to not seeking out medical care due to their past experiences with medical professionals. Considering the well-documented legacy of bias and outright violence against African Americans at the hands of the medical and scientific communities, it should come as no surprise that black people, particularly black men, would harbor a level of distrust and suspicion toward the medical community that ultimately poses a threat to their own health and well-being.

This is one of the several urgent reasons why the Campaign for Black Male Achievement created CBMA Health and Healing Strategies — an innovative and timely effort to empower Black Male Achievement leaders with the information, tools, and resources needed to monitor and maintain their personal health, healing, and wellness. Launched in 2016, the initiative aims to combat the racial health gap by promoting healthy behaviors and strengthening the wellness of leaders and caregivers, so that they, in turn, can create healthier environments for the young people of color they serve. One of the catalytic moments that spurred CBMA to launch Health & Healing Strategies occurred in 2015 during its annual Rumble Young Man, Rumble event in Louisville, Kentucky, where a number of leaders in attendance shared their own struggles with depression, poor health, and even suicide ideation. At that moment, CBMA knew it needed to be proactive in responding to this growing challenge, both in the BMA field and the broader black community.

With seed support from the California Endowment, Health and Healing Strategies has been implementing school and community-based strategies around the management and reduction of stress, pain, trauma, and other health challenges that disproportionately impact black people. The initiative also uses multi-media and storytelling to help increase awareness, promote dialogue, and change the narrative around these issues. With a focus on addressing the root causes of poor health and disease, and their frequent aggravation by inadequate and inequitable healthcare access and treatment (as highlighted by the report), CBMA seeks to instill a renewed and strengthened commitment to health and well-being in America’s black communities, today and into the future.

The California Endowment’s continued investment in Health and Healing Strategies (including an additional half a million dollars earlier this year to expand the initiative) demonstrates philanthropy’s critical role in cultivating the innovation and collective will needed to achieve positive health outcomes for black people. But in order to sustain them, efforts like Health and Healing Strategies need increased support from bold and courageous leaders at both the philanthropic and policy level, leaders who are unambiguously committed to eradicating racial and other biases from our healthcare, education, criminal justice, and political systems.

At the same time, leaders in philanthropy and the BMA field must look in the mirror and ask themselves how they can set an example by integrating health, wellness, and self-care into their collective and organizational ethos and culture. Only by embodying the type of leadership we want others to exhibit will we successfully create the transformative change needed to close America’s racial health gap.

Shawn Dove serves as the CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA), a national membership organization dedicated to ensuring the growth, sustainability, and impact of leaders and organizations focused on improving the life outcomes of America’s black men and boys. Dr. Phyllis Hubbard is the director of CBMA's Health and Healing Strategies, a wellness program that seeks to improve the health and well-being outcomes of cross-sector leaders working on behalf of black men and boys.

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