Make 2023 a Year of Racial Healing and Understanding

January 12, 2023 | Michael Fraser, Kimberlee Wyche-Etheridge

A teacher sits on his desk, facing students, as they all laugh togetherMany years ago, an experiment was conducted with a class of grade school children during which each child was given a note card with instructions they had to follow for the rest of the school day. Students were not allowed to share their card with anyone else. The cards had messages including: “don’t talk to anyone wearing blue,” or “smile at anyone wearing green,” and “ignore anyone not wearing a sweater.”

At first, the students took pride in their assignments. But as the afternoon went on, they became frustrated—not being able to eat lunch with their friends or talk to others. There were tears and complaints of meanness and unfairness. The students requested to end the activity early so they could go back to their “normal” classroom interactions.

When the teacher announced the end of the assignment, the students cheered. Some hugged their friends, and apologized to others, as everyone showed their cards. When the students quieted down, the teacher asked them how they felt excluding some of their friends and being nice to others. The children who were the target of negative behaviors described the experience as hurtful and painful, while those who enjoyed being included and treated well expressed their positive feelings.

The teacher took the opportunity to have a serious talk with the students about the importance of inclusion and accepting others, and how often what we are told or believe about others unfairly influences our behaviors towards them. No one had any control over the note card they were given just as they had no control over where they were born or who their families were. She talked about how similarity of appearance or family history had historically been used to deny families of some of their friends and classmates the rights and freedoms that others enjoyed. She hoped that the next day, the lessons from the notecard experience would inform how her students interacted with each other.

Each January, the National Day of Racial Healing brings attention to the need for truth, racial healing, and transformation. But what happens just after—in the next day, the next week, and many months after? Can we learn something new or different that we can sustain? Are we willing to address health equity and promote anti-racism work in ways that move us all forward?

Some recent examples of ASTHO members putting their weight behind programs that help engage and diversity the workforce primarily in careers in healthcare are from New York and Illinois.

New York’s Mentoring in Medicine is a one-of-a-kind state program that helps bring equity to the public workforce by connecting a diverse group of mentors to a diverse group of high school students. Illinois is creating a framework that will approach and create sustainable infrastructure and support community-identified needs to positively impact the socioeconomic and environmental conditions driving disparities and improve health outcomes.

Let us make 2023 the year we commit even more to listening to and learning from each other and transforming how we interact with those around us in ways that truly impact state and territorial health agencies’ work of health promotion and disease prevention. The importance of racial healing work is not only to acknowledge how the past informs our present, but also to inform our work in the future.

We wish ASTHO’s family—members, partners, and staff—a happy and “transformative” new year!