A frank discussion on racism, aging and health care

  • Helen Petties speaks during Saturday’s Racial Justice Rising Panel in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/MAUREEN O'REILLY

  • Yenna Yi speaks as part of Saturday's Racial Justice Rising panel. STAFF PHOTO/MAUREEN O'REILLY

  • Don Wright speaks as part of Saturday's Racial Justice Rising panel. STAFF PHOTO/MAUREEN O'REILLY

  • Sue Pratt speaks as part of Saturday's Racial Justice Rising panel. STAFF PHOTO/MAUREEN O'REILLY

  • Don Wright, left, and Yenna Yi, right, listen as Sue Pratt, center, answers a question during Saturday's Racial Justice Rising panel. STAFF PHOTO/MAUREEN O'REILLY

Published: 10/7/2019 5:39:11 AM

GREENFIELD – On Saturday morning, about 20 people gathered at the First Congregational Church to hear a panel on racism, aging and health care, hosted by the all-volunteer group, Racial Justice Rising. The group hosts a monthly speaker panel.

“I think [of the panel] as an opportunity to talk about race, racism and racial justice in our area where it is not a much-discussed topic,” said volunteer Sharin Alpert.

This month, three speakers talked about their intersectional experiences on racism, aging and being in a health care setting. A fourth speaker, who was white, spoke about challenges facing home health care workers, which is predominantly a non-white workforce.

First up was Helen Petties, a 20-year Greenfield resident who raised her two children in Greenfield. In many of her experiences, Petties needed to think about how her own behavior and how it would be perceived by white people — not something that her white counterparts often think about.

“If I come in [to a conversation] meek and mild, you’re not listening to me. If I come in [stronger], then I’m the angry black woman,” Petties said of how she can be thrust into a stereotype.

Petties recounted being called a racial expletive multiple times when crossing Main Street and the apathy that many teachers and administrators expressed when Petties spoke to them about the bullying her son faced in the public school system. A few weeks ago, Petties said she asked a neighbor to turn down music and was told to go back to her country.

Recently, Petties has been dealing with knee pain, which causes her to walk with slight limp. At health care appointments, Petties said she faces the stereotype that she’s seeking opioids when she instead wants to find the root of her pain.

Petties added that she understands why medical professionals are wary, but she said experiences like this leave her feeling frustrated.

“I think it’s important for dialogue to happen,” Petties said in an interview afterward, of why she agreed to speak. She added that people are a product of how they grew up and dialogue gives people the opportunity to understand how their upbringing may negatively affect others.  

“People need to commit themselves to making change,” Petties said.

Following Petties was Yenna Yi, who has lived in Colrain for 15 years. Originally from Korea, Yi has lived in the US since 1970. For many years, racism wasn’t a big presence in Yi’s life because “I had a white husband and I have two hybrid kids,” she said, which acted as shield.

Yi spoke about racism she faced when she was living by herself and working locally as therapist. In an office setting, Yi recounted greeting a new clinician, who ignored Yi until it was apparent that Yi was a qualified member of the office.

Yi spoke of discrimination towards immigrants, who are often expected to be polite and educated just enough to do their job.

Acting as a health care advocate for her mother, Yi said she was treated rudely by a doctor, who dismissed her questions about her mother’s treatment. Only later did the doctor respond to her questions, Yi said.

Don Wright, who has lived in Greenfield at various times in his life and has currently been living here for the past seven years, spoke about how in his experience, Greenfield has been less racist than other places he’s lived. 

Three years ago, Wright facilitated a 12-month training program at The Recover Project. Wright is a trained facilitator of the national SEED project that uses dialogue and education to work toward social justice, according to the program’s website.  

One anecdote Wright told that impacted the audience was how there can be a language barrier between minorities and white people.  

Recently, when making a return at a local store, Wright said he was told, “You look like an honest man, you’re free to go.”

The language of that interaction, of a white person telling Wright that he was “free to go” viscerally struck him. “It just brought back 200 years,” Wright said, alluding to American history of white people telling black people when they could be free.

Wright told a white friend, who didn’t understand the impact it had on him, Wright said.

Sue Pratt, the last speaker, talked about challenges facing health care workers. 

Pratt noted that in her decades of experience in the field, caregivers are often paid $12 to $14 an hour and many leave their job due to injuries.   

A Home Care Aide Foundation assessment conducted in Massachusetts found that nearly 50 percent of aides were born outside of the U.S. In the same survey, 90 percent of home health care agencies cited recruiting qualified aides as one of their top challenges.

During the Q&A session, the idea of privilege in caring came to the forefront. Pratt said that in her decades of caring for the elderly, she has felt privileged to provide care.

Racial Justice Rising’s monthly speaker series is free and open to the public. Free snacks and free child care are provided.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy