Clockwise from top left: Brandie Flood, Jamie Garcia, Hamid Khan, Tara Moss, Mienah Z. Sharif
Together, we can center community voices to address structural racism
When Brandie Flood and Tara Moss intercept someone on the brink of arrest, they have one central question for that person: “What do you need?”
They ask because, when the illness is generational trauma, racism and poverty, arresting someone is not going to address symptoms like trespassing or stealing. Community-rooted care, however, might be the antidote.
Flood and Moss work with LEAD, a Seattle-based program that provides individuals with resources to address multiple social determinants of health (e.g., housing). In doing so, they are working to disrupt mass incarceration of racialized minorities.
Dr. Mienah Z. Sharif, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health, is learning from people like Flood and Moss and developing strategies for partnerships. Sharif is a new faculty whose studies include racism’s impact on health across a lifetime as well as how racism operates in systems like scientific research. Throughout her work, she centers community voices.
Sharif’s partnerships with communities don’t always look like traditional academic projects based on narrow scopes or timelines. Instead, she is building relationships that recognize projects will evolve based on what community partners prioritize.
“In order to advance anti-racism goals, we [public health professionals] must be willing to unlearn how we have grown comfortable with doing our work, including considering how racism permeates the systems we work within. One part of doing this is becoming comfortable recognizing how little we know,” says Sharif. “It’s more than lending a voice to communities. It’s stepping back and passing the mic over.”
SEATTLE PARTNERS: LEAD
Sharif studies incarceration, one of many interconnected systems like immigration and education, through which racism systematically oppresses racialized communities. The U.S. incarcerates more adults and youth than any country in the world, and the consistent overrepresentation of racialized minorities is glaring. A 2020 report from Washington ACLU and UW researchers says the state’s prison population has nearly quadrupled since 1980. Washington was the first state to enact — and still upholds — the excessively punitive “three strikes” law that disproportionately targets people of color.
LEAD was a response to the U.S. government’s decades-old “war on drugs,” which systematically detained racialized minorities. LEAD addresses disparities through a multi-sector, harm-reduction approach by providing people with access to services like employment or health care to prevent interactions with law enforcement and reduce recidivism in King County.
After intercepting people who otherwise would have faced arrest, Flood and Moss first ask how they can help rather than prescribing a fix. One person had an untreated speech impediment, which was so embarrassing to the individual that it led to alcoholism. Another was the third generation in their family to be unhoused in Seattle. Another was being denied lifesaving surgery until they were sober.
“Physical and mental health challenges are at the heart of what’s going on with our folks,” says Flood, who describes the work as “helping people who don’t have people.” Flood is the director of community justice at REACH, a harm-reduction organization connecting individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, substance use and health conditions to services.
“For us to strive toward health equity, we have to look at who is systematically deprived of opportunities to lead healthy lives.”
LEAD is backed by research showing participants in the program were better able to obtain housing, employment and legitimate income compared to the month before they participated. Costs were much lower than if they had participated in a “system as usual” approach, and individuals were less likely to be arrested.
“We take public health and safety concerns seriously for the community while also acknowledging that the criminal legal system can further harm individuals,” says Moss, the co-executive director of programs at the Public Defender Association. “Disproportionately people of color are going to be over-incarcerated and -arrested. LEAD was designed to address this situation head-on.”
Sharif, Moss and Flood hope that research can amplify the need for social programs to prevent and reduce racialized patterns in incarceration.
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Relationships built on community listening are inspired by Sharif’s training in the Public Health Critical Race Praxis, developed by Drs. Chandra Ford and Collins Airhihenbuwa, described as a “self-reflexive, raceconscious” approach to health equity work.
Hamid Khan, a community organizer of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, has worked with researchers around the country but says his partnership with Sharif is unique.
“Traditionally, in our own experiences with academic institutions, the relationship starts as being extractive and ends as being prescriptive,” Khan says. “But our relationship with folks like Mienah is completely flipping the script. Rather than being extractive, it’s more generative."
Incarceration causes major health disruptions to communities by pulling apart families, causing intergenerational trauma, and subjecting prisoners to inhumane conditions, Khan says. It also causes emotional harm from fear of constant surveillance.
“We talk about ‘virtual carcerality,’ the way the system is constantly tracking you,” Hamid says. “If you are constantly considered a suspect body, then you know the emotional trauma that a person goes through by feeling suspicious.”
Jamie Garcia, a community organizer with the Coalition and an acute care nurse in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, has firsthand knowledge of how incarceration and public health are linked. “We need to stop seeing public health as a systemic failure,” Garcia says. “We need to see how public health is working exactly as it is to reinforce poverty, deprivation and banishment, and choosing to create conditions where Black, Indigenous and people of color fail and have worse impacts and violence inflicted on them.”
Through their partnership with the COVID-19 Task Force on Racism and Equity, (co-led by Drs. Chandra Ford and Bita Amani), the Coalition and Sharif center their conversations on surveillance and the many ways in which public health data can be weaponized to harm communities. Another critical piece of their conversations is the international dimensions on racism, a perspective that informs Sharif’s work, and which she intends to mainstream through her work at the UW. Surveillance and policing are only two examples of this approach. For example, Sharif collaborates with the Coalition on webinars and teach-ins and one topic discussed is how many of the U.S. government’s surveillance systems being used to track and control people of color are often piloted first by the military in other countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“For us to strive toward health equity, we have to look at who is systematically deprived of opportunities to lead healthy lives,” Sharif says. “We are not witnessing new public health crises. Our systems were designed to oppress certain groups and maintain the dominance of others. Throughout history, racism is a fundamental driver of these inequities."
Sharif is eager to collaborate with faculty, students and partners throughout Seattle on an anti-racist agenda that has community and social justice at its core.