The Narrative with Matt Lewis is a blog series that explores the importance of human connection, relationships, and hope, topics central to the mission of 3rd Conversation and important for all of us during this time of uncertainty. As the chief storyteller of 3rd Conversation, Matt is an expert on the use of narrative as a tool for connection, teamwork, and leadership development.
This month’s interview is with Amanda Lewis (no relation to Matt), Professor of African American Studies and Sociology, and Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the co-author of the critically and nationally acclaimed, Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. Her research focuses on how race shapes educational opportunities and how our ideas about race get negotiated in everyday life.
ML: Since March [when COVID became widespread in the United States], how have things been for you?
There is a profound amount of existential angst, ambiguous loss, and uncertainty around what we will find when we come out of this, and importantly, when that will be. We initially thought this would be a 2-3 week shutdown to flatten the curve, and here we are many months later still watching the numbers nationally get worse.
I’m in that stage of life where I’m both raising children and taking care of elderly parents. As a parent, I am also very worried about my daughter and her feelings about the world.
It’s been a lot of work trying to stay focused on gratitude, keeping in mind that things could be way worse, and trying to take it one day at a time.
Interacting with the health care system right now feels incredibly hard. We really like my father’s doctors and I’ve been able to be on Zoom meetings with them in a way that I would not have been able to before. They have been generous and available. But also, there have been moments when the care my father needed was postponed, even when they knew it was potentially putting him in jeopardy. We understand why it’s happening, but at the same time, my daughter and I drove out to California for my father’s surgery only to find out a few days ahead of time that it was being postponed.
All of that is overwhelming and confusing.
And then there is the context of the ongoing racial tumult– both extremely discouraging and hopeful at the same time. Discouraging because of what it says about the extent of racism nationally. Hopeful because of the mass multiracial and mostly peaceful demonstrations in cities across the country. On any particular day, I ask myself ‘what do I want to worry about today?’
ML: Staying on the topic of the social justice movement happening now, I’m interested in your reflections on if this is similar to events in the past or if we have entered a new kind of awareness. Also, I’m curious what you see as the role of human connection and relationship building in this movement?
The momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement is different than it was even a few years ago because it has grown; it is now more organized and structured. They [BLM] are changing the conversation. We are having public conversations we would not have had before around funding the police or the criminal justice system, around police presence in schools, about whether the police make people feel safe and who they make feel safe.
A lot of people are engaging, asking questions, reading, showing up in new ways.
I see it in parents in the education sphere. People are asking how to advocate for all kids, participating in pushes for racial equity, and in service of these goals, they are developing new kinds of relationships.
I was talking to some parents in an area of Washington, DC that has experienced gentrification and changes to the schools. A group of parents of different races have come together to think about how they can function differently, and for the school and the community to be a different kind of space. We wouldn’t have seen that a while ago. They got a grant to facilitate relationships, help them build a stronger core, and bridge the differences along race and class. That kind of structure and organization, which was not there in the past, really helps sustain these efforts.
ML: Social determinants of health was a topic of interest before COVID, but COVID has blown the door off by showing the variation in health outcomes along racial, economic, and geographic lines. What connection do you see between your work and the health care system?
Why is COVID impacting some people more than others?
A lot of the focus is on co-morbidities, but blaming co-morbidities is a way to not think deeper about why those co-morbidities exist and the structural background that creates them. In most cases, people don’t have a clear understanding of why race matters to health. Many medical professionals weren’t taught racial literacy. As such, many medical professionals aren’t racially literate and the consequences of that reverberate. Looking at the curriculum in medical schools, it’s embarrassing how little students get and how old fashioned and out of date the cultural competency framework is.
I don’t think healthcare is unique in this problem, but health care is arrogant about it, and this has big consequences for people’s care.
Health care could do a lot more if it recognized the pervasiveness of troubling racial dynamics in every facet of the health care system as a significant problem. That would be a start.
ML: What is giving you hope? And circling back a theme we have discussed throughout this conversation – relationships - what do we need to be doing more of individually and collectively to be more thoughtful in our relational interactions? If we really want to change health care, what do we need?
When and where I see people stepping out and embracing being uncomfortable, recognizing and being reflective in ways they haven’t before, and thinking differently about what their role in the world is and what the world needs – those are the things that feel hopeful.
Related to health care, one of the things we noticed when my sister and I were with my dad in the hospital is that the doctors clearly had all had the same training and at the end of the patient debrief, they kept asking what other questions we had. Even when we could tell they were rushed, they would ask. And when we did have more questions, they took the time to answer them. They were being sincere. It made us feel much better about the experience, even though at the time things were not going well. A small thing. But important. In my experience, most of our interactions with health care are alienating and rushed. So yes, absolutely, relationships matter in the context of health care.
So much of what we want in our lives is the capacity to live with dignity, to be treated with love and respect in the world.
Many folks have not had that experience of having their full humanity nurtured and embraced. That’s part of what people are fighting for in 2020. I see the dramatic impact all the time in schools, and also in health care, when that element of human dignity isn’t present.
Dignity, love, and respect - that work is relational. It’s about the choices we make. It’s not just literally being next to each other. It’s more complicated than that, but in some ways, this is also not that complicated. We just have to choose how we show up.