When COVID-19 unleashed its fury last year, Mass General Brigham, like every health care organization, kicked into high gear to set up clinical protocols and reach out to affected communities. Mass General Brigham packaged thousands of “care kits” of masks, soap, hand sanitizer and patient-education materials on staying safe and stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
Outreach focused on communities including Lynn, Chelsea, Revere and Lawrence, which have received approximately 70% of the distributed kits. But members of the Mass General Brigham Community Health department recognized something was amiss with connecting with these communities.
“We quickly realized that people in the Black community didn’t feel safe,” says Kristen Barnicle, former Executive Director of Community Health. “Churches weren’t shutting down the way that they were supposed to. There were still young people having parties. And people didn’t have the information they needed, they didn’t have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed, so we lobbied to be able to provide it.”
“There was a concern, and there was an outrage because we saw that other communities were getting what we weren’t getting,” adds Geneva Gordon, Community Engagement Manager in Community Health.
So Barnicle and Gordon joined forces with the Community Health department’s ongoing effort to engage directly with Black communities and build personal relationships, and they started their own two-person distribution system. Working with team members putting together kits at Assembly Row, they used their own cars to bring the kits into the Black community.
“We went to my church, Morning Star Baptist Church,” says Gordon. “They were putting together bags of groceries. And as we were leaving, they were stuffing the care kits in the grocery bags because people were coming to pick up groceries.”
That personal touch was crucial in communities that have been traditionally suspicious of large organizations like Mass General Brigham, Gordon points out. “I found out that sometimes Mass General Brigham has to make the first move. We have to show up and listen. If we want to do a really, really good job at treating the people that we see, it’s important to take into consideration everything that has to do with them. Every single thing. The more we know about the patient, the better we can treat them.”
As team members learned about each other, they began to reflect on their own journeys, and find deeper connection and collaboration. There have been inaccurate portrayals of the history of slavery, racism and the civil rights movement within American education and media throughout the 20th century. This highlights the fact that many people, particularly older white people, don’t have a balanced understanding of Black, immigrant and indigenous peoples’ experiences.
Gordon says it is important for everyone to understand those experiences. “We need to embrace each other’s cultures and not be afraid to ask questions. I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’m not afraid to ask. And if it’s hurtful, tell me if I shouldn’t go there. But we’ve just got to be more inviting as an organization. If nothing else, people just want to talk. They want to be heard, and if we can help them after listening to their stories, that’s a win-win for both of us.”
The community advocacy team, which consisted of Black Mass General Brigham staff and Black community leaders, practiced those techniques in weekly Wednesday meetings to address the needs of the Black community during COVID-19.
Gordon says Brigham and Woman Hospital’s youth program director Michelle Keenan and others “did not come in trying to be like white saviors. They came in with a good heart and head and to listen. They sympathize. They empathize. They empower you.”
Participants also believe a shift in thinking from charity to equity is important—something as simple as making connections so colleagues become friends.
There’s one clear metric about the success of the program: As of April 23, 2021, the program distributed 471,000 kits, which included patient-education literature on how to stop the spread of coronavirus, according to Dan Kobrin, an education and training program manager known around the office as “the king of care kits.” That breaks down to 4,276,000 procedure masks, 473,000 bars of soap and 450,000 bottles of hand sanitizer delivered to more than 30 cities, towns and community groups.
Gordon says there is a less data-driven but equally important metric. “The community advocacy team that met weekly didn’t have on shirts and ties. They had their sleeves rolled up. We identified the issues that many Black folks were experiencing. We worked together to address those issues. And that’s why this endeavor has been a successful one.”
This story was featured in Mass General Brigham’s 2021 Check-up on DE&I Report “Equity in a time of crisis.”
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