By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
ALBANY — February is Black History Month and this year’s theme is health and wellness in the African-American community.
To honor the month, the Albany County Legislature recently convened a panel of health and well-being experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges in African-American communities.
The panel was presented by the Legislative Black Caucus and moderated by Joyce Williams, director of Homer Perkins Center, a residential educational facility based in Albany.
Andrew Joyce, chairman of the Albany County Legislature, opened the virtual Zoom panel, and said the discussion offered an opportunity to highlight the inequities in the health care system and how society can work to resolve that.
The county’s Legislative Black Caucus has worked for years to shed light on what government can do “to address, identify and fix some of the inequities we see in our health care system, and what we can do at the county level to remedy some of those longstanding and systemic problems,” Joyce said.
Williams posed questions to two health and wellness panelists — Josetta Jenkins-Smith, founder of Healing Whispers, and Keshana Owens-Cody, MSHRM, director of Health Disparities Programs at Health Research, Inc.
Williams’ first question to the panel was why a conversation centered on Black health and wellness was critical at this time.
“With every generation we are providing an opportunity for change and 2021, 2022 is no different,” Jenkins-Smith said. “One of the things about change is that we have to be uncomfortable, recognize this discomfort and go about addressing that discomfort in a different way. The Black community has gone through a lot for a long time, but a lot of the disparities and trauma have been brought to the forefront by technology.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put many of those disparities front and center, she added, and can present society with a vehicle for improvement and for correcting inequities in the system.
“What is happening now and the pandemic really highlighted is putting in front of the nation and the world what the Black community is going through, and the world is noticing,” Jenkins-Smith said.
Owens-Cody agreed the pandemic has spotlighted issues revolving around health on many levels.
“Our bodies are managing a lot and we have suffered a lot — we have suffered losses from COVID, we have lost families, we have been exposed in high numbers to the coronavirus itself and a lot of times we are on the front lines of social justice,” she said. “A lot of times health is the last thing we are prioritizing, so I think this conversation today is really going to help us talk about how we can center ourselves around our health.”
Williams asked about the changes panelists have seen in the health care system that have impacted communities of color.
Health teams have changed and now oftentimes include care coordinators and community health workers that can help individuals access information and assistance, Owens-Cody said.
“With community health workers, it’s people that look like us, it’s people that are right in our communities that are able to break down what it is like to go to the doctor’s office, [or if] I don’t understand this medical bill or I don’t understand why I am being prescribed this particular medication,” she said. “There is a lot of investment in bringing community health workers not only to community-based organizations, but a lot of people are starting at the grassroots [level] and bringing health information right into the community.”
The information is frequently more culturally sensitive to the needs of communities of color, Owens-Cody added.
Jenkins-Smith said one of her main focuses is the spiritual aspects of her community.
“One of the things I have been so excited about is that communities of color are asking questions,” she said. “They are looking at how emotional health, spiritual health, mental health and wellness have been practiced in their families for generations, what has worked and what has not worked. So communities are asking questions — what can I do differently — and looking at new ways to solve these problems.”
The pandemic — along with the associated shutdowns and quarantines — has given some people the opportunity to take a step back and pursue their spiritual life, Jenkins-Smith said.
“There is never time to sit with self in isolation and the pandemic, as horrible as it was — with losses of family and losses of jobs, employment and income — it also provided that isolation space that was an opportunity to sit with yourself and deal with personal needs,” she said.
Williams asked how the pandemic has changed the way people, particularly communities of color, look at health and wellness.
“The pandemic exposed that health care is not just physical health — it is physical, it is mental, it is social,” Owens-Cody said. “Employment, education, housing is a big thing right now and there is stress, too, and how does that impact our bodies as well.”
There has also been a fresh look at social determinants of health — those issues that affect health status such as poverty, racism, educational disparities, discrimination, housing and inadequate nutrition, among others.
“How is this impacting your mind, your body, your soul, your spirit,” Owens-Cody said. “I think that the pandemic really exposed that. It’s not just about your physical or your chronic condition — it’s about housing, it’s about do you have access to food, it’s about transportation. Do you have access to the resources that you need?”
Williams inquired about the biggest challenges impacting Black health and wellness, and how to tackle them.
“The biggest impact that I have seen is the fear to do something different. There is also the fear to say, ‘I need help,’” Jenkins-Smith noted. “Those two fears are the biggest challenges that impact communities of color.”
Asking for help has not historically led to the desired results for the Black community, she added.
“It’s really hard for the Black community to ask for help,” she said. “Because when we open our mouths and say we need help, history has proven that we get the opposite. So we are encouraged to just keep going, keep your mouth shut, don’t let house business go out on the street. But we really need to encourage the Black community to do differently.”
There is also a tendency for Black individuals to feel a sense of suspicion or like they are being judged when they ask for help, she added.
“That perception is not there for no reason, but we have to overcome that,” Jenkins-Smith said. “We have to overcome that and know that our health, our wellness, our well-being is more important than that fear and suspicion.”
Williams asked what steps individuals can take to improve their own health and wellness.
Owens-Cody recommended that people ensure they have a trusted and knowledgeable team behind them.
“Do I have insurance, do I have a doctor that I feel comfortable talking to, that I know is going to empower and advocate for me?” Owens-Cody said. “You want to go somewhere where you feel you’re going to be heard, where you feel your needs are going to be addressed. Those are some of the first steps that we can take.”
Williams said that is an issue she has faced personally when she was unable to find a physician she felt comfortable with.
“I was looking for a Black cardiologist, trying to go to a doctor that looks like me and will have understanding and knowledge of my health issues,” Williams said. “I could not find a Black cardiologist… and finding an African-American GYN (gynecologist) for African-American women.”
She said a publicly available listing or book with the names and information for Black physicians would be helpful to communities of color.
Jenkins-Smith urged people to be inquisitive and ask questions of their health care provider.
“It is vitally important, and if you might be concerned or have a level of fear at asking questions of the doctor, then bring a trusted family member who can have your back because having someone there who has your back can help you have that confidence to ask the questions that you need to ask,” Jenkins-Smith said. “We have to ask those questions.”