By Sandy Leuthner - Senior Communications & Advocacy Consultant

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Overcoming Racism conference: Awakening. Woke. Taking Charge.

November 29, 2017

Understanding how racism has a real impact on health is critical to creating a future where all Minnesotans have a chance for better health. While Minnesota is known for offering a high quality of life, that experience is not shared by all Minnesotans –  especially among culturally diverse and ethnic communities.

These types of equity challenges were at the heart of the Overcoming Racism conference, held this November in St. Paul and proudly sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Several Blue Cross employees whose work is focused on advancing health equity—both in the workplace and throughout Minnesota communities— attended the conference.

A commitment to advancing racial equality

An annual event since 2008, the Overcoming Racism conference is organized by the Facilitating Racial Equity Collaborative (FREC), a group of organizations and individuals committed to overcoming racism in Minnesota. Members of FREC work to create and support just, equitable, anti-racist communities.

The conference covered a variety of important issues that cut across communities experiencing structural inequities. Many were rooted in the systemic practice of unequal access to leadership roles and decision-making processes, often resulting in unfair policies and practices.

Workshops helped participants gain skills and greater understanding of how racism occurs alongside other pressing issues— from immigration reform and environmental policies to health and criminal justice reform.

Advancing structural equity outside in

At the conference, members of the Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council (CECLC)—  an organization chaired by Vayong Moua, director of health equity and advocacy at Blue Cross— held a panel discussion on their work to develop the Minnesota Department of Human Service (DHS)’s agency-wide equity policy. Moua moderated the discussion.

“The panel discussion at last month’s conference gave us an opportunity to reflect on our work with DHS and the need to change hearts and minds along with policies to actualize equity,” said Moua.

CECLC recognizes that inequities are avoidable, preventable and unjust. They can be effectively addressed through community-driven action and leadership. Therefore, the newly created equity policy is a structural solution to a structural problem.

Starting in 2013, the CECLC worked closely with DHS to implement systemic, policy and practice changes that would advance the department’s focus on equity. The newly created DHS comprehensive policy embeds an equity lens into how key decisions about leadership advancement, contract creation, budgeting, policy analysis and community engagement are made.

“Through tenacity and commitment— along with some uncomfortable conversations— CECLC members built trust with DHS staff,” Moua said. “I’m thankful to work with people who lead with humility and conviction to ensure we are transforming decision making while being megaphones for communities we serve.”

Deeper understanding of equity

A session by Sindy Morales Garcia and Kirsten Johnson from the Wilder Center for Communities explored some of the mindsets that can lead to and worsen racism and racial disparities. Through a workshop that used a series of videos produced by the Racial Equity Action Support Network (REASN), they led a discussion to  examine how “mental models” that impact equity-focused work.

The following video explains the “mental models” concept.

Both keynote speakers at the conference have written extensively on equity focused topics.

Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, is the author of 14 books. His equity, education, and cultural work has placed  him on a path of service around the region, the nation and the world.

Dr. Duchess Harris, chair of the American studies department at Macalester College, is author of four books and co-author of “Hidden Human Computers:  The Black Women of NASA, and Black Lives Matter” with Sue Bradford Edwards.

Videos of the keynote speakers can be found on

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