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St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center Leading Effort to Dismantle Structural Racism

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Dr. Candice Lucas and Dr. Christine Wagner

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“Racism, in all its forms, is a public health issue,” notes Dr. Candice Lucas, Executive Director of St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center. For the past two years the agency has been working behind the scenes to combat institutional racism.

With a small grant from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation, the agency enlisted the commitment and participation of 28 organizations across the county for two years to do the work of addressing institutional racism.

“The work of dismantling inequities is an ongoing process,” Lucas said in a press release.

The agency issued some key issues they learned through the process:
• More education is needed on how racism operates – at the internal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels.
• Most agencies did not realize the extent to which their policies and procedures upheld and perpetuated racial inequity, whether intentionally or not.
• Progress with respect to equity can and needs to be quantified and measured in terms of concrete tasks and action steps. It is not enough to be a “good, well-meaning person.”
• The work of becoming antiracist organizations starts with recognizing and addressing our own behaviors and biases.

The Center was established 25 years ago with a mission is to address the primary care and mental health needs of city residents in the South Wedge section of Rochester where they are located; but Lucas says racism is a health issue.

“It has been clearly demonstrated that racism, whether through personal bias or through embedded structural policies and norms, results in sub-optimal health outcomes for non-white populations and is a community health issue,” she noted. “That is the reason St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center led a two-year initiative to assist human service agencies in becoming antiracist organizations.”

Dr. Christine Wagner, SSJ, Special Advisor to St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center and Co-chair of the Partnership for Access to Health says dismantling structural racism must happen at both an individual and collective level throughout our community.

“This work demands that we interrogate the power and privilege we take for granted and requires us to unpack and deconstruct those implicit and explicit biases that we (or society) may carry in order to dismantle racist structures and policies.” Wagner said.

Lucas says over the last two decades, St. Joseph’s has expanded and reorganized its programs and services to meet the ever-growing needs of the Greater Rochester region. “Sadly, too many gaps and barriers exist in the current healthcare system that allow people to fall through the cracks. After trying multiple approaches to meet the health needs of the community, it became painfully obvious that the cause of poor health outcomes goes much deeper. It is not the people that are the problem, it is the system.”

As the first cohort continues to do the hard work of interrogating, dismantling, and redesigning their internal policies, St. Joseph’s is preparing to launch its second cohort. St. Joseph’s is asking agencies to commit for one year of intensive racial equity work, with an ongoing, long-term commitment to stay engaged into the future.

Aligned with the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiatives (RMAPI) guiding principles on structural racism, and in partnership with the City of Rochester’s Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) Initiative, St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center serves as the anchor and lead organization for the broad-based, community effort now known as the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI).

REJI builds upon the work that was started by St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center two years ago and the five-year effort of Facing Racing, Embracing Equity (FR=EE). Through REJI, participants will deepen their understanding of racism and develop strategies to address racism in all its forms. In addition to assisting the organizations in dismantling institutional racism, REJI is also developing a racial justice institute, convening disparate community groups to collaborate on dismantling structural racism, compiling a resource library, and establishing a biennial conference. REJI is informed and directed by a Steering Committee of community members. Several organizations have already signed up for the second cohort, and spaces are still available for others.

For additional information, contact Joel Elliot at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center: jelliot@sjncenter.org or 585-325-5260.

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