DGH Live Blog: Keynote, Nekima Levy-Pounds – “Race and Societal Health”

Ms Levy-Pounds opened her talk by stressing the importance of self-care in people of color (PoC), e.g. members of Black Lives Matter, who are actively engaged in the struggle for social justice while also chronically exposed to stress and community violence. This stress is exacerbated when people in the medical profession don’t understand the history and experience of trauma of people of color. Some have good intentions, but good intentions are not good enough.


Ms Levy-Pounds wove her personal story of being a lawyer-activist throughout her talk. She spoke of her childhood in a very poor community in Jackson, Mississippi. White people didn’t live in her community and didn’t talk to them; the interactions she had with white people was minimal, primarily only when she went to the doctor. She thought she knew poverty, but was exposed to a different kind when she moved to south central Los Angeles at start of the “War on Drugs” (WoD). She spoke about the history of the WoD and its present manifestation as a global war, which she sees as a war against the poor and people of color. In 1980 the US prison population was approximately 500K; in 1990 it doubled to 1 million and in 2000 2 million. There are currently 2.2 million people incarcerated and another 7.4 million are involved with the criminal justice system. She briefly touched upon the faulty evidence and myths (e.g. effects of maternal use of crack cocaine on infant development) that have been debunked.

The WoD impacts people, families and communities to this day, especially African American men (who account for 40% of the incarcerated). We need to ask why are fathers absent and understand the root causes of absent fathers. For example, a recent study identified “ambiguous loss” in children as a form of grief similar to the death of parent; they experience depression and act out in school as a result of being disconnected from parents (Vera Institute, NYC). As pertains to the impact on women, many have been incarcerated simply because they are connected to men engaged in selling or using drugs (guilty by association). She shared the story of Kemba Smith an African American woman from a middle class family and attending a university in VA; she was sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to participate in her boyfriend’s drug activities. She was given clemency by former President Clinton.


She provided historical context to our current social conditions by reminding us of the 13th amendment that “supposedly abolished slavery.” She alerted us to the second part of the amendment, which states that the exception to this is if one has been convicted of crime. This amendment effectively closed the door to one form of slavery while opening another door to another form of slavery. Many southern states changed laws such that being a black man became a crime. After 13th amendment passed, jails were filled with black men who were sentenced to 10-15 years of hard labor; railroad, farm, and mining companies benefitted from this free labor (America Never Abolished Slavery, Slavery by Another Name, The New Jim Crow).


She reminded us that healthcare is a system. If people within this system don’t understand patients’ background and history, this makes is difficult to build bridges and improve someone’s health. Also, the healthcare system intersects with other systems who have negatively impacted communities (e.g DCF and the risk of children being removed from women who experienced domestic violence, the Tuskegee experiment).


One way we can make an impact is to truly understand and make connections between medicine and social justice. There are lots of reasons to be blind to disturbing things, but we have a moral responsibility to reflect upon what kind of oath we took.


Ms Levy-Pound then circled back to growing up in South Central LA where she witnessed depression and hopelessness. Many men became involved in gangs because they took the place of families and provided comfort, stability, and a place to create a livelihood. She saw a society that didn’t really care, a society desensitized to deaths due to gang violence, the devaluing of black lives. She shared the story of Latasha Harlins ( Nekim’s high school friend), who went to corner store to buy juice and never walked out because the wife of the owner shot her in back of head.


All of these experiences set the stage for her current involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. She thought she was an activist because she was writing about WoD, mass incarceration. Her self-image was dramatically changed when Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri in November of 2014, and the grand jury decided not to indict Darron Wilson. She arrived in Ferguson as a legal observer while the decision was released under the dark of night and police threw tear gas at the protesters. She learned that there were snipers - armed white men who had traveled from other parts of US to protect businesses. She walked to the heart of the protests, which were mostly peaceful, but then erupted when police fired tear gas. She mentioned the march on the Mall of America.


She ended by exhorting us to recognize that we live in system dominated by white people that have been deeply embedded and operate under a white supremacy framework. If we operate in this system, we are part of the problem, so be aware and disrupt when possible. We don’t have to protest, but you DO have to raise critical questions and not be comfortable with the status quo. We should not be silent in the face of oppression. We have a duty and responsibility to use our voices and rise up and challenge the system. And we need to do more listening - PoC will tell you what they think. Don’t sit at tables where people talk but have no timeline for getting the work done to make change. Don’t sit at tables where people around table are not the color of the affected communities. With every problem there is an opportunity to do better. The time to act is now!

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