Back in May, Gov. J.B. Pritzker was at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park to tout the passage of a health care bill designed to confront the racial and economic inequities in the state’s health system.
The governor said the pandemic “only heightened” the necessity of equitable health care in low-income communities of color like Austin, where many, if not most, of West Sub’s patients live.
The bill, the Chicago Tribune reported, “calls for the creation of an anti-racism commission to identify and propose statewide policies to eliminate systemic racism and creates a Medicaid Business Opportunity Commission, which is designed to support and grow businesses owned by minorities, women and persons with disabilities.”
The bill also creates a program that will train and certify people to become community health workers — people like a young Evelyn Young-Huff.
Young-Huff grew up in Maywood. She was a single mother when she went through nursing school — a “baby in one arm, book bag on my back with my uniform on catching the bus,” she told me when I interviewed her back in April.
Young-Huff was a certified nursing assistant before she became a registered nurse. She’s worked in West Suburban’s emergency room for many years.
In 2015, after years of teaching CNA courses at a local community college, Young-Huff, who is at the age where she should be thinking about retirement, decided to start her own certified CNA training school in order to help train the generation of health-care workers who will succeed her. It took her six years to finally open her small school inside of a park district building in nearby Broadview.
Young-Huff said she wanted to open her school in the area where she grew up because there’s a dearth of culturally sensitive training institutions for young people who want to pursue certification in medical jobs like nursing assistant that have relatively low barriers to entry and are pathways to career advancement.
The Proviso East graduate said that, as a Black woman who grew up in a low-income community of color, she has a sensitivity and understanding of minority students that’s often missing in CNA training programs run by large, predominantly white institutions, I reported in May.
“Sometimes the students don’t get it, they don’t understand, and the instructors don’t understand where they come from,” Young-Huff said. “You have to understand your audience. I understand. I grew up in the area. I know what they’re facing.”
That understanding is particularly important in a field where Black women are concentrated heavily. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black women make up about 1 in 3 nursing assistants in the United States.
And yet CNA training programs owned and operated by women of color like Young-Huff are few and far between. Young-Huff’s training school is just the second in Proviso Township that’s Black-owned.
I asked Young-Huff if she’s ever gotten any state funding for her lone endeavor. Nothing. Did she know about the law designed to help “support and grow” businesses like hers? No.
In fact, Young-Huff believes the state regulatory body she had to deal with in order to secure her school’s required certification was her biggest blockade to opening.
Too often, when people talk about racial equity, particularly white people, the emphasis is on Blacks as consumers, patients, students — a passive, captive audience just waiting to be helped. Even when the equity chatter extends to ways of helping Blacks as entrepreneurs, rarely is the discussion about raw, unfiltered capital or contracts or share of spend; rather, it’s about “technical assistance” and some “commission” established to talk some more.
Rarely does the dialogue around racial equity in white society extend to, well, actual equity — ownership.
Let’s be honest, the entities that have received the most substantial windfalls in government funding during the pandemic, even funding related to eradicating racial inequities, are virtually all owned and controlled by whites.
Who owns and controls the hospitals that so often mistreat Black patients? The banks that abuse Black borrowers? The health-care training institutions that are so often ignorant of the needs of Black students? The PR, marketing and ad agencies tasked with trying to persuade Black community members to get vaccinated?
Meanwhile, Black-owned enterprises like Young-Huff’s, enterprises that state officials should be working overtime to identify and fund in order to achieve their purported objective of addressing equity, are ignored, if not outright sabotaged.
Before she opened her Broadview facility, Young-Huff said, the place caught fire, yet another obstacle in her path to realizing her dream.
“Right before the fire, someone from the Board of Higher Education came out,” she told me. “They don’t normally come out to sites, but they came out. Someone said this was a concession stand. Instead of knocking on the door and seeing what’s going on inside, they just reported it as a concession stand.”
At one point, she said, the IBHE wanted to shut her down because she didn’t have any students.
“They were like, ‘You know, you don’t have any students,’” she said. “Well, I couldn’t have any students, because the place was set on fire. It was just one fight after another and it seems like minority operators are the ones who are targeted.
“I know other people who have schools who didn’t go through any of what I had to go through. They open their doors and then open up another one and another one. I’ve been fighting for five years. That’s five years during which I could have increased my students and the program offerings, but I’ve been fighting with people down in Springfield.”
Take another example. Roland Martin, the pioneering Black journalist who hosts his own digital news platform (which I strongly suggest you subscribe to), recently spoke up about the paucity of dollars flowing to Black-owned media companies that are perhaps best positioned to make the case to Black communities about why the vaccine is beneficial.
“It’s a whole bunch of Black doctors that MSNBC, CNN, and the networks were not calling until after we put them on, because we amplified their voices,” Martin said on an Aug. 6 episode of his show, before letting the cat out of the bag.
“The folks controlling the money — they want us to do it for free and then they go give the millions to other people,” Martin said. “The strategy that was devised [for messaging the vaccine in Black communities] was ineffective from day one.”
Martin interviewed Terrance Woodbury, a Black public opinion researcher who was even more frank about the present pandemic reality.
“What is happening right now is a redistribution of wealth. It is happening,” Woodbury said. “So the money conversation of how this vaccine gets distributed is important. Billions of dollars [are being spent] to distribute the biggest product in the world’s history.”
You may think it’s vulgar to talk about money in the context of COVID-19 and vaccine distribution — to which, I’ll echo Martin: “Game recognize game.”
Viacom. Comcast. Disney. News Corp. The NBA. The NFL. And many smaller white-owned marketing, advertising and media agencies. Collectively, they’re getting billions to run advertising campaigns heavy on Black athletes and entertainers trying to persuade Blacks to get vaccinated, but light on substance.
Meanwhile, Martin, who takes the intelligence of Black people seriously, regularly interviews Black experts and directly confronts cynicism in order to genuinely help confront psychological barriers to vaccination in Black communities and he’s expected to volunteer his efforts.
Let me reiterate. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money is spent on equity-related messaging, medical care, vaccination efforts and the like, but for all of this money spent ostensibly to help Black people, how much of it is spent on entities Black people own? How much of it is directed to enterprises we’ve created ourselves? And that we control?
Black people own polling firms, research firms, health-care training companies, media firms, medical practices, etc. But listening to all of this equity talk, you’d think we were only patients, consumers and students.
“If you want to understand why Black people are not taking this vaccine, why they are hesitant, then you need to talk to the organizations that do the research in these communities,” Woodbury said.
“What they do, Terrance, let me go ahead and put it out there,” Martin said. “They go hire one Black consultant, throw them a little $60,000 or $80,000 contract. Then they go hire a white polling firm and give them $3 million to $5 million, or $10 million. …
“Then, they’ll send a request for proposal to 20 Black media organizations and the total amount of money is $300,000. So they want 10 to 20 of us to fight over $300,000, when [one] white company got [millions], but then y’all are wondering why we’re bringing up the money.”
I asked Young-Huff what she would say to Pritzker and other state officials about how they can help Black business owners in the health-care industry like herself.
“The state needs to recognize us,” she said.