This article is the second in our four-part series, “Equity in Action: How Awardee Leadership is Shaping Racial Justice at The BUILD Health Challenge.” Through our partnership with alumni from The BUILD Health Challenge® (BUILD) over the last year, we sought to address questions about racial justice in the context of strategic planning and decision-making at BUILD and learn how to support BUILD awardees in their racial justice work. This four-part series will cover 1) the awardee engagement process, 2) community-level learnings (here), 3) awardee recommendations, and 4) BUILD’s commitments going forward.    
Throughout the racial equity learning process, the Advisory Group identified four overarching themes about how BUILD communities actively integrate racial justice work into their respective initiatives. These themes provide a foundation for understanding the intricate dynamics of this complex topic. Lessons from these themes can be integrated into BUILD’s decision-making about how to best support communities through technical assistance, evaluation, and other resources.

Theme #1: Advancing racial justice through authentic relationships and action    

Cultivating relationships grounded in genuine conversations and purposeful action is a cornerstone of racial justice work. The Advisory Group underscored the significance of building trust and fostering connections among awardees, alumni, and communities to advance racial justice. Active listening, embracing diverse viewpoints, and creating secure spaces for community engagement were highlighted as pivotal in forging these foundational relationships.  

Institutions such as healthcare, public health, government, business, and philanthropy often engage with communities in ways that do not prioritize trust, which perpetuates systemic oppression, bureaucratic barriers, and silencing tactics. This lack of authentic engagement significantly impedes progress in advancing racial justice. 

Authentic interactions transcend surface-level discourse and transactions, setting the stage for enduring transformations. Trust extends beyond individual interactions and is woven into the fabric of communities, drawing upon such authentic relationships to build collective power. Trust is critical in uniting community-based organizations and residents to advance racial justice.   

This theme underscored the need to address how political institutions and other systems hold and hoard power, and a lack of trust in community decision-making, all of which prevent authentic connections from taking shape.

“Be humble and look to the assets of our community because sometimes we just get into communities thinking we will solve their lives. And we need to hear clearly that they are the ones involved in the challenges of every day, and sometimes they have better solutions.”
– Vanessa Rodriguez

Theme #2: Confronting structural racism through acknowledging a shared history and place    

Acknowledging shared history, especially historical injustices and oppressive systems that perpetuate power imbalances, is vital for advancing racial justice. This awareness can galvanize stronger, more targeted movements aimed at confronting and dismantling these entrenched systems. Advisory Group members acknowledged the historical influences of policies and practices that have harmed and continue to harm communities of color in their regions and across the country. These historical wrongdoings include practices such as redlining and discriminatory zoning laws. Such policies have segregated communities and continue to perpetuate harm, some of which Advisory Group members were confronting in their work.  

On a local level, acknowledging and understanding this history leads to a better understanding of the current inequities they are fighting to address in their communities. Shared historical knowledge also helps cross-sector and community-driven partnerships make the case for their work to local stakeholders. Further, this recognition helps to create and support solutions that are specific to the harm facing communities. Developing a shared history of place sets the stage for shifting perspectives and fostering collective actions to confront injustice directly, from addressing discriminatory zoning laws to integrating history into educational curricula and beyond.   

“It really is the starting line because unless you know where you’re starting from and have that sort of common understanding of history, or bringing everybody to a common understanding, it’s pretty tough to manage what becomes, for some, a very difficult conversation.”
– Eric Burmeister 

Theme #3: Centering racial justice in collaborative endeavors   

Amplifying marginalized voices and the role of partnerships and collaboration is important to effect meaningful change. The Advisory Group discussed how BUILD can center racial justice by supporting the effort to identify local allies in awardee communities who strengthen the support networks for people working at the intersection of racial justice and health equity. BUILD can also center diverse perspectives and practice effective communication around a shared racial justice-centered vision to which all awardees hold fidelity.   

These commitments by BUILD would help to center racial justice in collaborative efforts among BUILD awardees. Authentic community involvement and a multi-sectoral approach are both fundamental to moving the needle toward a more racially just world where systems of oppression are recognized and dismantled. Collaboration also leads to more sustainable work, as many partners with a shared vision can continue to build off one another’s work and learn together.   

Achieving racial justice cannot be done alone. It entails thoughtful collaboration and openness to collective learning across diverse communities, sectors, and experiences.  

“Those of us who are fighting for racial justice have to be just as loud and proactive and reactive as those who don’t want to see that change… There are people who are giving lip service, and it may really be in their minds and their hearts to do [racial justice work], but the resistance that they’re receiving is so loud, and they don’t feel the support of those who want to see it happen.”
– Donyel Barber   

Theme #4: Shifting mindsets toward systems change   

The imperative to transform mindsets for systemic change resonated with the Advisory Group throughout their discussions on racial justice. Shifting mindsets involves overcoming personal biases, discerning between equity and equality, navigating the complexities and incremental nature of systems change-based approaches, and the courage to persist. The Advisory Group discussed how a systems change mindset challenges established hierarchies and fosters a deep understanding of the systemic racism and structural inequalities that underlie the challenges their communities face.  

Especially for awardees providing direct services to communities experiencing multiple systems of oppression, a systems-level mindset helps people see how their work is intricately connected to a broader movement aimed at dismantling systemic racism. This perspective is especially important to bear in mind when progress appears gradual and incremental and for individuals operating in politically challenging and isolating environments.  

The Advisory Group also discussed how shifting mindsets for systems change demands the courage to initiate and sustain challenging conversations about systemic racism’s deeply rooted presence in health and community outcomes today. It also requires the courage to embrace transformative learning that may challenge preconceived beliefs. Shifting mindsets requires acknowledging that systems change is a gradual, persistent process of unwavering commitment and continual effort to dismantle systemic racism and its embedded structures.  

“In order to do systems change, we have to fight the system. Moving from the rectangular table to the circular table. Reframing hierarchy and who matters.”
– Natasha Butler    

As we review the themes highlighted by the Advisory Group through this learning process, it is evident that our journey at The BUILD Health Challenge has room to grow and we are committed to turning the talk of racial justice into action. Next, we will outline the Advisory Group’s recommendations for BUILD’s future.