Acknowledgement and Action: How Lowell Community Health Center Is Tackling Racism

By Sheila Och, Chief Engagement & Equity Officer; Clare Gunther, Chief Advancement & Communications Officer. Lowell’s employee Equity Advisory Committee also reviewed this blog.

To mark our 50th anniversary two years ago, Lowell Community Health Center (Lowell CHC) installed a timeline in the lobby of our building, a renovated textile mill building in downtown Lowell, MA. The timeline’s start date: 1970, when Lowell CHC was established.

This June, we’ll be adding another panel to that timeline as we celebrate Juneteenth. The panel is titled “An Acknowledgement.” In it, we acknowledge that, without the labor of enslaved workers in the South, our historic mill building would not exist.

When it comes to working toward a more just and inclusive organization, Lowell CHC has learned that the first step is acknowledgement:

We must acknowledge the injustices that have played and do play out against people of color in this country.

Acknowledge that we, as a community health center born out of the Civil Rights movement, need to reconnect with and remain centered on that charge. 

Acknowledge that we must constantly examine and adjust organizational practices to ensure they don’t perpetuate the same systemic barriers we pledged to dismantle. 

Acknowledge that we must learn from and trust the voices in our community.  

Since its inception, Lowell CHC has been at the forefront of providing culturally responsive and inclusive care and education. That commitment became heightened in 2009, when members of our Teen BLOCK youth program bravely led the way in giving voice to the first community-wide acknowledgement of racism in Lowell.  In doing so, the youth held us accountable to our promise, our responsibility, and our purpose as a community health center. We recommitted to advancing equity, inclusion, justice, and more pointedly, anti-racism work.  How could we not?

This acknowledgement has led to action. And we acknowledge it has not always been easy, or seamless.  There have been some uncomfortable conversations and moments. Two years ago, the vast inequities laid bare by the pandemic, coupled with the murder of George Floyd, challenged us to again confront racism in our community, and our nation, head on. It was then that our Board of Directors adopted a resolution acknowledging that racism is a public health crisis, and committed to taking concrete actions to combat racism through:

  • Data equity, transparency and accountability that expands our understanding of population health, inclusive of race, ethnicity, and language. We published COVID vaccine data equity reports to show the community where we stood in reaching those most impacted by the pandemic and to inform our strategy for advocacy and distribution.
  • Cultural competency and anti-racism education and training, informed by our Equity Advisory Committee comprised of employees from across the organization, creating regular opportunities and safe spaces to learn, to listen, and to ask questions.
  • Equitable and inclusive funding, fundraising, and purchasing decisions, such as more closely tracking efforts to work with businesses that have been historically racially underrepresented and positioning our patients from a standpoint of strength, not deficit.
  • Diverse racial representation at all levels of governance, leadership, and workforce.  This has included analyzing racial representation of our Board of Directors, leadership, and staff by refining the collection of race/ethnicity data, conducting an organizational pay equity audit, and assuring the broadest reach possible for recruitment, inclusive interviewing, and diverse search committees during that process. We also launched a Health and Wellness Series — learning spaces which featured BIPOC leaders in our community.
  • Community and patient involvement in service and program design, including co-leading the region’s COVID-19 Equitable Vaccine Rollout Initiative, comprised of over 50 community and faith-based organizations working with and informing one another.
  • Advocacy for policies that improve the health of racial and ethnic minorities at the local, state, and federal levels. We refuse to be silent.

Lowell CHC has also acknowledged that we needed to rename and rethink some of our holidays and celebrations as several are rooted in racism, trauma, and an erasure of true historical context. As examples of our commitment, rather than Columbus Day, we now celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. We also added Juneteenth to our list of holiday observances.

Soon, we will be adding another chapter to our timeline, acknowledging the displacement of indigenous peoples who first settled the region that became greater Lowell. That, too, is part of our history.

Just like understanding and acknowledging our history, the work of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism must be ongoing. This work is both reflective and aspirational. It must always work to ensure people are seen and heard, and that the work is transparent, culturally and linguistically rooted, and mindful of the trauma experienced by immigrants, refugees, and communities of color.

It starts with acknowledgement.

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