It’s been awhile. It’s been a weird and busy time on my end, but I hope to post a little bit more frequently over the next few months.
I’m writing this on Father’s Day, surrounded by family (those who live in my home) and love. I’m thinking a lot about family and fatherhood. I’m also taking a moment to reflect on an initiative I’ve been involved with every Father’s Day weekend over the last few years.
I moved to New Haven almost six years ago from New York City. I was hungry for opportunities to engage with the communities around me and learn from and support the folks of African descent who lived in New Haven. In the Spring of 2015, I was offered the opportunity to co-chair a men’s health day initiative organized by the Yale African American Affinity Group (YAAA) – Yale University’s employee affinity group for African Americans (and other people of African descent) on Father’s Day weekend. The event took place at barber shops throughout Greater New Haven. The program design was simple. Two volunteers were placed at each location – a medical volunteer and a ‘community’ volunteer. The medical volunteer would conduct blood pressure screenings for shop patrons (and those who happened to be in the area) over a two – three hour period. Once the screening was complete, the volunteer would help the patron understand their numbers and share some tips for healthy living. The community volunteer was responsible for recruiting patrons and ensuring that the process went smoothly.
In my first year, I visited each of the ten locations. I met eager volunteers and barbers with deep roots in the community. I spoke to barber shop patrons of all ages and from all walks of life. I connected with entrepreneurs and construction workers, lawyers and folk who would prefer to talk about anything but their job. Fathers, grandparents, children. Some were getting haircuts because they wanted to be fresh for Father’s Day. Others wanted to look their best for church. Still others were simply there for their regular appointment. I saw seasoned volunteers engage with patrons on their level – helping them feel more relaxed when talking about a topic that some find uncomfortable. The conversations were casual but they had purpose.
Over the next four years, I connected with some amazing people who helped me expand our partnerships with barber shops and other community stakeholders. We grew from 10 to 26 locations and tripled the number of people who were screened. In 2019, our medical volunteers screened and had purposeful conversations about health with over 350 people.
It’s amazing (and exhausting) work.
For the first time in a few years, I woke up feeling refreshed on Father’s Day. I don’t have a living room filled with t-shirts and give away bags or a handwritten lists of follow up calls I need to make on Monday or a draft of a thank you message for all of the volunteers. Our Men’s Health Day event was one of the many events that were canceled in the wake of the COVID 19 emergency, and while it’s very low on the scale of problems that have been caused by the pandemic, it is a reminder of those who are struggling the most in this moment. The people in the neighborhoods we volunteered in were hardest hit by the crisis – they were the ones called in as essential workers, the ones with the higher infection, hospitalization and death rates. They are the ones who lost their jobs in the wave of layoffs that followed the emergency closures. The shops we partnered with have not had any income for the last two months and are re-opening under drastically altered conditions. All of our community initiatives may have less access to financial resources than we have had in the past.
Is it unusual that I feel so hopeful right now? Over the last few weeks, we’ve had global protests against police violence targeted at the African American community that have grown into protests against institutional racism and white supremacy. I’ve seen people discuss solutions that felt unimaginably radical only a few months ago, monuments to white supremacy come down and local governments end qualified immunity for police officers. It feels like a moment for having the conversations that we’ve always been meaning to start.
We can use this moment to think about new ways of empowering all members of our community around health (which is a critical component of freedom). We started with a conversation about men, but we can use this as an opportunity to join the conversations about women and gender diverse people in our community.
This year I’m going to spend my Father’s Day playing with my kid, lounging around and thinking about how we’re going to come back stronger for 2021.
One last thing – I shared a message with the folks from our affinity group and our pool of dedicated volunteers that I’m going to include here because I’d like to send this message far and wide (especially if the person reading this is in the New Haven area).
“Over the last twelve years, Yale’s African American Affinity Group (YAAA) has celebrated Men’s Health Month by partnering with local medical volunteers to provide free blood pressure screenings and health information to members of the Greater New Haven community at local barbershops and salons.
We started this event because members of the African American and Latinx
communities are at higher risk of high blood pressure and heart disease and more likely to be disengaged from the health care system. We thought that offering free blood pressure screenings in a friendly non-traditional setting during a weekend that celebrated men and fatherhood would be a great opportunity to promote reengagement and raise awareness. The event has evolved over the years. We create spaces for men and women in our communities to have casual conversations about health in a safe environment. These screenings have become opportunities for people to improve their health literacy and empower themselves to take charge of their health.
This year is different.
The African American and Latinx communities in which many of us live, work and volunteer have been hit hardest by the COVID 19 virus over the last few months. We are being infected, hospitalized and dying from the virus at a higher rate than other communities. In New Haven, the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases are in predominantly African American and Latinx neighborhoods like Dixwell, Newhallville, Fair Haven and Dwight.
The barber shops and hair salons that have partnered with us over the last dozen years have been closed for over two months due to the pandemic. Although many reopened last week, they are operating at limited capacity for safety reasons.
As a result, we will be unable to hold the annual Men’s Health Day event this year. We are working with some of our longstanding partners (including the Yale Latino Networking Group (YLNG)) to explore alternate ways of engaging with and informing our communities over the coming months.
The last few weeks have also been a reminder of something that our communities have always known – that African Americans have experienced a public health crisis since we entered this country. Dr. Gregg Gonsalves and Dr. Julia Marcus (both epidemiologists, one from the Yale School of Public Health and the other from Harvard Medical School) may have put it best in a recent article in the Atlantic when they explained that “the health crisis for black Americans didn’t start in 2020. It started in 1619.” The stress that is caused by racism increases the risk for a range of chronic conditions in the African American community, from heart disease to autoimmune and inflammatory disorders (according to the American Psychological Association).
We would like to do our part to respond to this ongoing crisis.
In the coming year, we want to:
- Deepen our partnerships with community organizations and businesses who can help us connect members of our community to the resources that will improve their health
- Explore new ways to empower our community around health issues
- Coordinate with existing affinity group health initiatives (from YAAA and YLNG) that engage with Black and Latinx women and gender diverse people (because we need to support and fight for every member of our community.
In order to accomplish these goals, we need your help. We want to recruit a Men’s Health Committee that can help us get this work done.
Happy Father’s Day. Black Lives Matter. Black Health Matters. Black Love and Power Forever.