[By Shanaé Burch]
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to videoconference with two long-standing and loyal members of Community Conversations: Sister-to-Sister. Roberta and Shirley have been an integral part of CC since its origin and are active, respected leaders within the
organization. Roberta was recruited by her daughter Nancy, and granddaughter Shelley (co-founder of CC). There have been times when as many as four generations of this specific family have been present for conversations, and this has overall made for a tighter bond within CC where many participants also bring their family members. Though now retired, Shirley learned of CC while working as a Cambridge Public School Family Liaison when she was recruited to help spread the word about CC to the larger Cambridge community. They may have joined CC for different reasons, but their motivations for continuing to return to the monthly gatherings illuminate the unique benefit of addressing health through the lens of being a Black woman and gathering together with other Black women. This conversation was a cherished occasion for the three of us to reflect on the monthly opportunity we have to share our experiences with one another and in turn learn from, be challenged by, and consider new points of view. This aspect of CC, the coming together of Black women across the generations, offers me as a scholar in training, the chance to witness firsthand the power of community organizing at the grassroots level. My experience thus far has expanded my imagination for the possibilities of trans-disciplinary collaborations for public health programming across the lifespan.
In the midst of celebrating nearly a decade of programming, Shirley says, “What’s really most impressive - most memorable to me is that you really have to keep coming because change doesn’t happen overnight…You have to keep hearing and hearing before change.” While some topics lend themselves to focusing on behavior change, others center more on shifting thinking, identity, and self-perceptions of power. Still others are selected to affirm and celebrate the unique aspects of ‘being’ a Black woman. Most importantly, topics are considered and selected by community participants and talking points developed as a collaboration between community members, community leadership and CC’s 215+ faculty of Black women working in medicine, science and public health. Despite being a health provider herself Roberta expressed surprise at the number of Black women health professionals practicing in the Greater Boston area, and many other members share enthusiasm about connecting with them in the sacred space that is CC. Looking around the room of our monthly gatherings, you can’t help but marvel at the diversity within the room -- representing Blackness across the vast African diaspora. Roberta articulates what so many have expressed in their own way: “To see these women is amazing. It really is. And [CC] gives you something to think about - that inspires you and your children to see that this is something really great for us.”
In speaking to the value of CC, Roberta admits, “I was a nurse, but [I learned] there were so many things I didn’t know even as a nurse, so CC is very helpful.” An avid walker who felt healthy and strong at the time, she wasn’t alarmed by her weight loss until a routine physical exam led to the surprise diagnosis of Type II diabetes. “Several people have come to talk to us about diabetes, what you should and should not eat, and I still kind of do my own thing, but I figure after 80 years and I’m still here...I try to do this in moderation.” It’s been over thirty years since Roberta’s initial diagnosis, so CC’s use of discussion for learning makes it so that Roberta’s own expertise of her health condition can be shared with other members of our health community. While Roberta may not identify this herself as expertise or advice, there are a number of people who would attribute parts of their growth in CC to not only the faculty of Black women health professionals but also other wise women because “the sharing piece is actually more important than we think” in the eyes of Shirley. By existing as a health initiative with an agenda set by its own community, the topics are a reflection of the care, concerns, and questions of those who actually attend the monthly gatherings. It is a sacred space, so feedback from community participants about faculty is especially included in strategic planning for the organization.
Part of CC’s plan in supporting community members as they navigate the medical system includes finding balance. To this Shirley says: “Balance is important in everything, including diet. For example, I'm more convinced now that I don’t have to give up any food entirely in the pursuit of health. Maybe my goal is to eat less of that particular food. Some schools of thought will say you must give up some foods for health reasons but another school of thought recognizes that a particular food may be one of your ethnic dishes and it may not be that easy to give up.” A question she keeps going back to is how can you keep any food that’s a part of your culture, and at the same time make sure to introduce more healthier foods into your diet. So in effect you are eating healthier foods while not totally giving up on your favorite ethnic foods. In CC we explore both schools of thought.
Shirley’s reflection points to a larger discussion in CC – How can we keep discussing the popular or even tried and true subjects while also incorporating new topics? Just last year, a suggestion was made to talk about sexual health. While a younger member blushed and expressed hesitation and discomfort, one of our wise women of the older generations offered reassuring words about the importance of exploring healthy and safe sexual relationships. CC counts on its wise women to help drive the work to bust the myths of what we can and cannot talk about in intergenerational spaces like CC. For some, the monthly gatherings have become a place where members might say something they’ve never shared elsewhere. As a result, we’ve come to believe that if we’re going to discuss cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis, we’re also going to discuss art, friendship, meditation, and healthy sexual relationships across the life span. We’ll even discuss highly sensitive and tender topics like anxiety, grief, loneliness, loss, and the perils and promise of race conversations. In Shirley and Roberta’s eyes, CC provides an opportunity to share in a non-judgmental space. This is described as feeling like “freedom”.
And maybe not every topic will be “up a person’s alley”, but Roberta and Shirley both believe there’s value in attending the monthly gatherings even if the topic doesn’t specifically relate to their own individual health concerns. Shirley believes “when you attend the meetings, there’s always a piece about health you can relate to – that you can change, that you need to start thinking about…even to help prevent you from getting the condition.” The information exchanged at CC also aids members in talking with loved ones, and sharing what was learned. Shirley is known to send a text or two after monthly gatherings to her kids that begin with “I was at this meeting, and….” This speaks to the take-home messages of CC reverberating beyond Simply Erinn’s Salon. The next step for us is to begin reimagining how wise women such as Roberta and Shirley can have their stories featured in our blogs and social media platforms. To that they say, “We’ll think about it”, but for them the in-person contact at meetings has been most helpful in connecting. As an intergenerational health initiative, we’re grateful wise woman such as Roberta and Shirley are a part of fortifying our community.
Shanaé Burch is a doctoral student in health education at Columbia University. She is an alumna of Emerson College and Harvard University where she earned her B.F.A in Acting and Ed.M in Arts in Education respectively. Shanae’s work with CC began in 2014 as a Research Intern before transitioning into a Jr. Faculty and Fellow role where she has supported the founders in strategic planning, program data dissemination, fundraising, and organizational development. Shanaé’s research in health behavior will explore the effects of arts participation and cultural engagement on health outcomes. Shanaé is proud to be a Gates Millennium Scholar, RWJF Health Policy Research Scholar, as well as member of Actors' Equity Association and the 2019 American Journal of Public Health Student Think Tank. She currently resides in NYC where her identities as a theater-maker and long-distance runner can equally thrive.