Intergenerational Conversation: Roberta and Shirley chat with CC Fellow Shanaé

[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.



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Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, a women's health initiative, is an an ongoing, open forum to explore health issues of particular relevance to Black women and their families. 

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