Ifetayo Johnson, OPEN, Inc. Executive Director

What do the words Racism, Pandemic, Progress, Equity, and Networking have in common? Us. OPEN. The Oral Health Progress and Equity Network (OPEN) is designed to address the effects of racism even in the middle of a pandemic.

Racism is a public health issue. It has robbed people of color of good health in thousands of incremental steps—some so insidious, so normalized, that it has been infused in the very air we breathe, resulting in our inability to avoid its presence in everything we do. It results in others reacting just a little slower to our pain, or to providing less to meet our needs. People of color have learned not to complain lest it be considered “playing the race card.” It is so ingrained into American systems that even today we still witness blatant acts of violence; acts that for centuries have been excused as necessary reactions to an “unreasonable” desire for equitable access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But it has also robbed white people of better health by removing the potential of those who may hold the key to your needs, by instilling in the national psyche a sense of privilege that often causes our white brothers and sisters to refute the oppression they are subjected to by the same system. COVID-19 has been both the great revealer of our health disparities and the undeniable equalizer. It has helped all of us see how intricately we are interwoven and demonstrates how the disease that attacks one of us, can eventually infect all of us. It also has shown us that the disease of racism that infuses the air I breathe must also infuse yours.

So now it is imperative that we clear the air. We are now experiencing a sense of comradery among people of all hues as it has become clearer than ever that the centuries long complaints of systemic racism, explicit and implicit, are justified. Having come to that conclusion, the question I hear most often is “what can we do?”

OPEN is working to address that question with actionable, feasible steps that can help move us towards a more perfect union. We are proposing a three-step plan:

  • First, to create a virtual safe space to allow all of us to share and hear our stories of our hurts, our confusions, our triumphs, and our fears.
  • Second, to educate in order to learn about the historical roots and impact of racism.
  • Third, to advocate and discover tools to use in our daily lives to confront racism when and where we find it.

As we develop these, we ask you to join us by providing your stories (info@openoralhealth.org) about your relationship with racism and permit us to post and share them in our reflection area, soon to be available on OPEN Communities.

Zora Neal Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So please understand as we raise our voices – it is to save lives. We will be reaching out to you in the days to come.