Embedded in American culture are systems of power that benefit specific populations through social and institutional prejudices such as ageism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, sexism and queerphobia.
In addition to the social categorizations such as race, class and gender, intersectionality represents how multiple forms of discrimination overlap in the experiences of marginalized people or groups. For instance, a Hispanic woman might face unique discrimination that excludes her from anti-racist and feminist policies.
Aja Barber, an administrator for the Center for Health Equity, the recently expanded wing of Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, advised area health professionals Tuesday that communities learn about intersectionality to avoid missing people’s experiences.
“We achieve equity when certain identities no longer systematically expose people to risks while granting others privileges,” Barber said during a presentation at the Barren River Area Development District in Bowling Green.
To dismantle these systems of power, Barber pointed to a need for strong leadership, strategic partnerships, timely data, foundational infrastructure and both flexible and public health funding.
And public health funding must include the public, she said. In 2018, the Louisville health department initiated a pilot program to include the public in deciding how some of its public funding will be used.
Matt Hunt, director of the Barren River District Health Department, envisions a similar process of public input in the health department budget.
The health department and the BRIGHT Coalition have captured some of the needs in the community through health impact assessments. Through this work, Hunt has identified the need for an expansion of public transportation and sidewalks.
Hunt also expressed the desire to address health equity issues through systematic and infrastructural changes in addition to the typical health outreach. The department always advocates that people eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, but there aren’t enough grocery stores or farmers markets located throughout the region.
To create significant shifts, Barber suggested that the local health community review the history of public policy. She cited a handful of examples of policy branded as equalizing measures that furthered social systems of power.
In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act was designed to improve workers rights but excluded domestic workers and farm workers, which, respectively, were mostly black women and men at the time. There has since been a demographic shift, but that legislation still affects these working communities, according to Barber.
From 1934 to 1968, the Federal Housing Administration created a “very fragile illusion” of boosting the middle class with low-interest loans, but loans were refused to black people. So while integrated communities were beginning to find solidarity together, the FHA ultimately segregated people, according to Barber.
In 1944, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed an “economic bill of rights” to grant people the right to livable wages, federal jobs guarantee, housing as a right, economic protections for seniors and price control for food. But it was rejected.
“We’ve never seen an economic bill of rights in this country,” Barber said.
In 1986, the federal government passed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that disproportionally affected black communities. For example, the language of the legislation was different for cocaine versus crack cocaine, with five-year sentences for 500 grams of cocaine versus five grams of crack cocaine, which was more prominent in poor black communities.
Fighting these systems will require collaboration across communities with diverse expertise, according to Barber. “We are only as successful as the collective power we build,” she said.
– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggers dailynews or visit bgdaily news.com.