Over the past few months, our lives at work and at home have been upended by COVID-19. We have experienced a great deal of uncertainty and worry about our wellbeing and about the health of our communities on all levels. At the very core of COVID-19 is racial injustice clearly demonstrated by the racial disparities in our healthcare system and society at-large. The data tells us that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are dying disproportionately from the virus.

Now, added to this, our nation is facing unprecedented insecurity and unrest as a consequence of the murder of Mr. George Floyd. Watching video of his murder makes me feel like I’m part of the crowd—complicit and watching a lynching. These are difficult words to utter, but they are true. As a leader, I struggle because of my inability to fully express something perfectly at a time when something perfect is called for. I feel a deep sense of humility and inadequacy and sadness. What I do know is that now is absolutely the time we must unite more strongly as a community for the good of all of the community, not just for some.

Racial injustices are rooted deeply in the very foundation of the society in which we live. The calls to action to address and dismantle them have been shouted by many for years, decades, centuries. These calls have fallen upon many deaf ears, including my own at times. It is our shared responsibility and my responsibility in leading Howard Center to ensure that we each take action— to empathize with, understand, and support people of color, and to magnify their voices here at the agency. This is a job for us all at Howard Center, but I have ultimate responsibility.

This week, the staff at Howard Center will join for an agency-wide town hall, via Zoom, where we can come together as a community to listen to one another and to discuss what is happening in the world— how it is impacting us, our clients, and our communities. It is a time, and long overdue, when we will gather to sort out what it is we really need to do to make things better, and to ensure that we do our utmost to provide not just the basic safety and the security that each and every one of us deserves, but also promote an environment in which we can all thrive.

In 2014, Howard Center began to formally implement inclusion and diversity strategies across the agency; created an office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI); required cultural awareness training for all staff; formed a DEI Cabinet; and prioritized the development and implementation of a system of care that is responsive to the varying needs of our diverse community.

Many of the practices that have evolved from this work focus on outreach, accessibility, and recruitment. We are proactively reaching out to individuals and organizations to ensure that we are reaching people who need our services. To broaden access we are using translation and interpretive services as needed throughout the agency. And we are assessing our cultural competency and identifying the actions that are necessary to improve. To build a staff that reflects the communities we serve we have expanded recruitment strategies to develop a diverse applicant pool. Ours is an ongoing and evolving process and we will continue to strive be an agency that is welcoming, inclusive, and equitable to all. Progress has been made but we still have much more to do.

In difficult times, I find it helpful to look to the words of those with lived experience to gain a better understanding. This excerpt from a poem by Dr. Jude Smith Rachele, Howard Center’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, has stayed with me:

“If you see me

And my head is hung low

It is not because

I cannot bear to meet your eyes.

It is not because

I am containing an incandescent

rage that is seething within me.

No.

It is because

I am in deep mourning, and

I do not

Wish

To be

Disturbed.”

Her words are so appropriate in this moment. The full poem is called ‘Soiling Innocence’ and I invite you to read it on Howard Center’s website. I hope you find her words as meaningful as I do.

As we all take this time to feel the full force of grief, we must also make a concerted effort to develop greater empathy for one another, and, by our actions, to work together to make lasting improvements to our society and institutions, and to create an equitable and just society in which everyone can thrive.

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