Meeting’s message: Racial justice is everyone’s work

  • Kat Allen, co-coordinator of the Communities That Care Coalition. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • People work in groups to discuss racial equity at a recent event at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/5/2019 6:01:08 PM

MONTAGUE — Jessica del Rosario said when she and her parents, who were in their mid-60s at the time, moved to the United States from the Philippines, they spoke fluent English.

“I grew up in a bilingual household,” she said. “But even after being in this county for years, people would still act surprised and say, “Oh, your English is so good.’ My parents handled those comments with grace, but I saw it as a reminder that we weren’t from here.”

The director at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in Boston recently told a packed room of about 40 social services providers and other community leaders, including educators, legislators and more, that in predominantly white rural areas such as Franklin County, race is something people always need to be aware of and work toward resolving. The event was held in Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls.

Kat Allen, co-coordinator of the Communities That Care Coalition, said the group invited del Rosario and others to speak about “leading with race in a predominantly white rural area” to bring awareness.

“We have to be aware of our actions, take steps and and figure out what we can do,” she said. “It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, but you also have to have an open mind and think about and work toward fairness.”

The Communities That Care Coalition invited del Rosario, Kirby Lecy, state Office of Rural Health Project coordinator, and Kim Etingloff of Mass in Motion, a program of the state Department of Public Health, to speak about racial equity.

The women spent several hours speaking to those who had gathered, as well as breaking them into small groups to discuss some of the issues they had put before them.

A couple of women in the Franklin County community broke into a group of two at one point early on to discuss when they first recognized race. One, a black woman, said when she was about 12 years old and spoke to an older white woman on a bus after coming to the United States. She said the woman wouldn’t say “good morning” back.

“She didn’t welcome my ‘good morning,’” she said.

The other woman, a white woman who works as the head of one of the area’s social services agencies, said she felt the effects of race after she “married a man of color.”

“We didn’t feel (racism) on the islands, but we felt it here,” she said.

Etingloff told the crowd that racism is based on hundreds of thousands of years of history, so it’s going to take time to make meaningful strides.

She explained that racial justice is about fairness and equity, not diversity (variety) or equality (sameness). She explained that disparity is inequality or differences, while inequity is unfairness or unjustness, as she made distinctions.

The women explained that statistics show white babies are born heavier than black babies, not because of biology, but because of access to health insurance and health care — that systems lift up some, while keeping down others.

They said that while many people try to change their views, it takes work, because there are institutional and structural comments they’ve heard their entire lives, like that white people are better and superior to black people, so some people may not even recognize that they have prejudices.

“Institutions work to reinforce inequitable outcomes,” said Etingloff.

And stereotypes don’t help, either, they said. For instance, Asians are thought to be smarter better at math, del Rosario, who is Asian, said.

“Racism tells us what we can or cannot be,” del Rosario said.

They said there are statistics that show that when it comes to health, finance, justice, education and child welfare, they are relatively stable in the white population, while not so much in other populations.

Lecy said rural white counties are the most important places to talk about race — they’re small enough that people can take a good look at structural systems that are promoting racism and do something about it.

She said there’s a lot that’s uncomfortable about talking about race, and people don’t like to admit that they may play a role, but everyone needs to look at what roles they might be playing.

“There’s a lot that can be invisible to white people,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to do and much more to understand. We need to shift the problem to white people — the work is theirs.

“Racial justice work is not work done for people of color, it’s done for all of us,” she said. “We need to lead with grace.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269 or

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