Flint, MI—Genesee County declared racism as a public health crisis more than two years ago, and researchers at the University of Michigan-Flint are currently working to push forward anti-racism efforts in Flint and the county with their collaborators.
Through the Beyond Rhetoric project, which aims to “end racist policies and practices” in Genesee County, Lisa Lapeyrouse, associate professor of public health and health sciences at UM-Flint, hopes the project will ultimately make measurable differences for residents in the county, such as improvements to their health and wellbeing.
“I need this to go beyond conversation,” said Lapeyrouse, a principal investigator of the project. “I think getting groups together … and having space to talk about our experiences is important, but I really want to affect meaningful change in the community.”
Beyond Rhetoric, she added, is about translating Genesee County’s 2020 declaration of racism being a public health crisis into action. Kent Key of Michigan State University, her fellow principal investigator of the project, helped author the county’s resolution. The project then launched a year after.
“Racism permeates just everything: how we interact with the healthcare system, who has access to the healthcare system,” Lapeyrouse said, adding issues like the Flint water crisis, food deserts in the City as well as the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and the impending operations of Ajax Materials Corporation’s asphalt plant to the list.
By bridging the voices of different groups, including the Latinx, Arab, and African American communities as well as those with disabilities, Beyond Rhetoric aims to help stakeholders work collaboratively rather than in isolation, Lapeyrouse explained.
“I would like to see a much more strategic effort for us to band together to say, ‘What are the things that are common to us that we can work on together,'” she said, “‘and then how can we also uplift the individual concerns that each group has?'”
As a first step, Lapeyrouse’s team formed the Community Action Council composed of various collaborators to draft a strategic plan, alongside input from focus groups. The plan identifies a host of priority areas, including community, education, employment, finance, health and healthcare, housing, law enforcement and politics.
When it comes to community, for instance, the strategic plan aims to improve access for people with disabilities and limited English proficiency for things like transportation and healthcare.
“Now that we have this blueprint of what we need to do or what the community would like to see, let’s figure out who we can partner with to actually get this work done,” Lapeyrouse said.
So, the team is in the process of putting together workgroups, which are open to anyone in the community, to achieve the goals set forth by strategic plan.
Meanwhile, Brittany Jones, a graduate student studying public health at UM-Flint, has also been compiling educational resources on Beyond Rhetoric’s website, including books, podcasts or movies, on discrimination and racism that are easily accessible for the public.
“What draws me the most is just being able to have one specific place where you can go and search different things that will expand your knowledge on anti-racism,” Jones said.
For Jones, it’s her first time getting involved with research on anti-racism and inequities, work that she feels personally drawn to.
“I’m excited because this is something that is personal to me, and because I can relate and I feel like I have knowledge on it,” she said.
Over the years, Jones has had insensitive comments directed towards her, encounters that she would brush off, she explained. But her experience having her son opened her eyes to what it feels like to have others discount her perspective, she said.
“That’s where I felt that I experienced that discrimination, because I wasn’t being heard,” Jones said.
She gave birth to her son nearly three years ago, and Jones experienced a hemorrhage during the process. But Jones said the concerns and feelings she expressed to the nurses went by the wayside at the time.
“I’m explaining to them how I’m feeling, and they were just not hearing me. They were kind of just writing it off,” Jones said, adding that she finally received blood transfusions when a physician intervened.
On Lapeyrouse’s part, working on the Beyond Rhetoric project is personal to her, too.
Her late grandparents worked their way up to the middle class. But, she said that “they had had so much discrimination in schools and in the workplace that they gave their kids American names, and they made the conscious decision not to teach them Spanish, because they did not want their kids to have accents.”
“The different assaults, or today we would call them microaggressions, that they encountered—that takes a toll on your health, and I think it absolutely contributed to their premature death,” Lapeyrouse said.
She’s a first-generation college student, and now as a professor, Lapeyrouse said what guides her research for Beyond Rhetoric and other projects on disparities, are the health inequities that have impacted her own family and the broader Latinx community.
“That’s really what drives it: Trying to figure out how can I make this sacrifice of going to school worth it—time away from my family and stuff— [and] how can I give back to my family, my community that means much to me,” Lapeyrouse said.