Health Equity

Equity Matters: Reflecting on the Foundation's Health Equity Work

December 01, 2023

Rebecca Gallo, the editor of this blog, suggested that as I get ready to retire from the foundation, I should use this space to reflect on our work to address health equity over the last 24 years.

As a student pursuing my master’s degree in social work, I was required to take courses to understand the root causes and impacts of racism and discrimination in society. While these courses were fundamental to my education, the concepts were not new to me. I had grown up watching reports of lynchings in the south, the violence that surrounded school desegregation in Boston, and the effects of redlining in Greater Boston. My own family experienced our own redlining, as realtors only showed my parents houses on two streets in one town because, “that’s where the Jews live.”

When I arrived at the foundation in 1999 there was lots to focus on - establishing a relationship with community leaders, getting to know prospective grantees, and mapping out our funding strategy. I also needed to learn more about the region’s population and their needs. To accomplish this, we published our first MetroWest Health Atlas in 2001. The atlas catalogued health indicators for each of our twenty-five towns and showed the changing demographics in the region. The region was seeing a rise in families from a wide range of racial and ethnic groups – Black, Asian, Latinx and new immigrant families from Brazil. The foundation needed to ensure that their voices were being heard and that their needs were included in our plans to address the health of the region.

In 2003, Edna Smith, a nurse, and former director of the Mattapan Health Center and the foundation’s board chair at the time, challenged the board to focus on racial and ethnic disparities in health. She expected her plea would be brushed aside and was taken aback when every board member not only embraced the idea but also voted to commit $1 million to the effort. We contracted with the Program to Eliminate Health Disparities at the Harvard School of Public Health to undertake an assessment and develop a plan of action. The result was a multi-faceted approach focusing on 1) Cultural and linguistic competency; 2) Consumer advocacy and capacity building; 3) Recruitment and retention of minority health care professionals; 4) Data collection and reporting on race and ethnicity; and 5) Establishment of community-wide disparities work group.

As a result of this plan, the foundation provided fellowships and scholarships to grow the number of health professionals of color in the region. We have held a variety of training opportunities for grantees and community members on cultural competency, diversity, and inclusion, and our ongoing work to catalogue health and demographic data has been done with a focus on race and ethnicity. Our racial and ethnic disparities workgroup continues to meet as it has done so for the past 20 years. Beyond these activities, the foundation has provided over $3.3 million in grants to community organizations to address health equity and health disparities.

The foundation’s commitment to health equity continues. Recent investments include understanding the health needs of those living in specific census tracts in South Framingham; core funding for the Wayside Equity Training Center; and continued funding for vaccine equity outreach and engagement work in Framingham and Milford.

The name of this blog is Equity Matters. We chose this title to emphasize that a focus on equity is central to our work. This work is never done. Our recent Groundwater Equity Training reinforced the deep historical and entrenched underpinnings of racism in society, and the impact it has not only on health care, but in so many other aspects of society – education, criminal justice, child welfare and financial security. Overcoming these barriers requires continued work.

To the next CEO, my advice is to stay focused on equity. I recommend that you spend most of your time listening to and learning from those in the community. There are amazing voices out there who can bring needs and solutions to the foundation’s work. They have taught me a great deal.

Martin Cohen is the president & CEO of the MetroWest Health Foundation

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