Even before the pandemic began last year, the topic of health and accessibility has been a primary concern. With the threat of COVID-19 ongoing, health inequities — especially among communities of color — have become an even more prominent issue.  

Dr. Vanessa E. Martínez-Renuncio is a professor of Anthropology at Holyoke Community College. Dr. Martínez-Renuncio joined Zydalis Bauer to share her insight on the history of health inequities among communities of color. They also discussed what solutions can help improve the lives of those who reside in communities hardest hit by these inequities.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Even before the pandemic began last year, the topic of health and accessibility has been a primary concern for many of us. However, as COVID-19 remains as a threat, health inequities have been surfacing to the forefront, especially among communities of color.

I spoke with Dr. Vanessa E. Martínez-Renuncio, professor of anthropology at Holyoke Community College, to gain insight on how these inequities have existed historically in communities of color, and what solutions can be offered to help improve the lives of the residents who reside within them.

Dr. Vanessa E. Martínez-Renuncio, Holyoke Community College:  For communities of color, we’re seeing higher rates of illness, higher rates of death. Unfortunately, that pattern isn’t new and we see it with chronic disease and infectious disease, historically for communities of color. So COVID is just following the pattern that we’ve seen, the health inequities that we’ve seen for communities of color.

So, it’s really about understanding the why. And there’s a lot of people now talking about the why and the why not being racial genetics or the biology of people of color, but rather the ways in which institutional racism, the environment, right, the neighborhoods, right, low resourced neighborhoods that you’re seeing sort of large communities of color being in these low resourced neighborhoods. Toxic environment, so thinking about issues of climate change. So you’re seeing more and more people having these connections.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to fully dissipate the misinformation or the fake information or incomplete information that we still have around sort of this idea that it’s in the biology of people of color or there’s something in the bones or there’s something in the culture. But instead, it’s really about understanding institutional oppression and low resources in communities.

Zydalis Bauer: How do social inequities impact access to medical care and educational opportunities in ways that might not be so obvious?

Dr. Vanessa E. Martínez-Renuncio: You know, I think it’s easier for people to understand sort of the person who blocks you from getting a job or who calls you a bad name. It’s much harder to understand the ways in which institutions like education — and believe me, I’m a higher ed professor, but — right, the ways in which education or the media or our government really work together in ways to really block access.

And, you know, part of the talk that I gave was about thinking about the ways that we can hold our our policy makers accountable, right? And think about the way — not just in implementing policies, but also in following them through, like really understanding, “OK, we need to make this change.” How how much change do we make and how do we ensure that it’s happening, right? That these that these changes are happening.

Zydalis Bauer: As a trans-cultural and medical anthropologist, you describe your approach as using a historical lens and an anti-racist perspective. What does that mean and why is it important for you to use this approach?

Dr. Vanessa E. Martínez-Renuncio: History allows us to see patterns, but I think the historical perspective is really important to understanding today and to understand both the things that have not changed and the ways in which change has happened, right?

In terms of an anti-racist lens, I think that race-first perspective really allows me to better engage, not just in communities of color as a Latina with light skin,  right, but also in white communities and being able to talk about these issues and really push people to engage in ways that are meaningful, but also push them out of their comfort zone, right?

So, in my talk, I spoke about the growth model, which is not my own, but it sort of makes an argument, right, that when we’re in our comfort zone, we don’t necessarily engage with new information because we’re just more comfortable. That’s where we want to stay, right? But if we move to a stretch zone, a place where new information is possible, we can engage. It’s innovative, right? It’s a place where you can think of new ideas and innovation and creative ways to to strategize, right?

Like one of my colleagues posted something on Facebook about creating an anti-racist reading group in Holyoke and asked for facilitators for the community, right? And this is Post George Floyd. And and I said, sure. So, I engaged a colleague of mine and a friend. And we are holding, we are co-facilitating anti-racist book club, right? Like reading together and having a discussion and bringing it to the local level. Like how does — how does this impact our local community here in Holyoke?

So, I think those are the types of things that I want people to really think about when they’re, you know, engaging with new information. You know, how can they make a difference? That’s really the point. How can you make a difference?

Zydalis Bauer: Are there any communities where progress has been made to equalize some of these inequities? And what can we learn from them?

Dr. Vanessa E. Martínez-Renuncio: What I can tell you is we see throughout history where progress has been made. So, for example, during Reconstruction is a great place to see OK, Blacks gain some access into government, into having small businesses into, right? And then, we saw sort of a shut down of those of those resources, of that experience.

And then we see post-Civil Rights. You know, Fair Housing Act, we see, right, a variety of legislation that really benefited people of color and communities of color. And then we saw a backlash, you know, in the late 70s, early 80s, right?

And so what we know is that with progress comes a backlash. And so we have to fight against those backlashes, because what history has shown us is that we’re not always just moving forward. We are moving in a direction, let’s call it forward, and people push us back and we move a little bit forward and people push us back. So, what history has taught us is to just keep moving forward and address the backlashes when they happen, right? Whatever those look like.

So if you’re me, you are giving talks like this, you are teaching courses, you are engaging with research in Springfield on climate change and racial justice. You are, right? And so I am hoping that the work that I do with my students, the Service Learning Project that the students are doing with the organization that I work with, that they are learning this information and that they then pay it forward. And that is my goal.