Reflections on Racial Justice and Health after attending RWJF’s Sharing Knowledge Conference

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Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the  Sharing Knowledge Conference held by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in collaboration with AcademyHealth and the National Collaborative for Health Equity. I joined 400 invited leaders with diverse experiences and backgrounds in a vibrant and honest discussion about this year’s theme – Racial Justice and Health. The goal was to harness transdisciplinary evidence to address the drivers of inequitable life outcomes and advance social change, with an emphasis on addressing one of the nation’s most durable and original forms of oppression—racism.

The session began with a plenary that featured a talk by Gail Christopher, who founded the National Collaborative for Health Equity. Dr Christopher challenged us to think about racial healing through building relationships, expanding circles of engagement and developing authentic relationships across differences.  This reinforced some of the themes that have emerged from our evaluations, especially the evaluation of a Community Catalyst program aiming to advance advocacy for consumer needs among communities of color.  In interviews with ICH, a dominant theme from consumers was how authentic relationships with advocates inspired them to engage more deeply in efforts to change policies.

Throughout the day, we reflected on how we can use data as a means to change narratives. A session on (Im)Migrant Health at the Intersection of Race and Legal Status highlighted the importance of lifting up positive stories and data in the midst of a war on immigration. This struck a particular chord for me, as my research has focused on demonstrating the impact of immigration policies on health and countering dominant narratives about immigrants. I was reenergized in my commitment to highlight and share the positive narratives about immigrants that emerge from our studies, such as the fact that instead of ‘draining’ healthcare resources, immigrants subsidize and support the healthcare of others.

Perhaps most invigorating of all was a discussion about the importance of equitable evaluation (the evaluator in me could not help but get excited!). Jara Dean-Coffey, founder of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, highlighted the potential of evaluation practices to redistribute power by sharing the quote by the Mexican novelist Laura Esquival: “Whoever controls information, whoever controls meaning, acquires power”.  I was inspired to continue to learn as we strive to incorporate as many principles and practices of equitable evaluation in our work as possible.

We are at the start of a new decade with many hopes and challenges for racial justice and health. I am excited to further the conversation here at ICH about how we can collectively address racial justice and health through equitable, utilization-focused evaluation. Most of all, I am excited to continue to work with our amazing clients and partners, who work hard every day to address the drivers of inequitable life outcomes and advance social change.

Leah Zallman, MD, MPH

Director of Research