Dismantling White Supremacy in the Oral Health System Starts with Community Power Building

  ·  Health Policy Hub

Earlier this month, we had the privilege to convene a panel of thought leaders working at the intersection of oral health and racial justice. The webinar, Oral Health Policy & Advocacy: A Health Equity Case Study, was the third in our The Uprising for Black Lives: Health Policy & Advocacy Perspectives webinar series. This series began by highlighting the effects of police brutality on health outcomes in the Black community, and the disproportionate coronavirus death rates. We know that root causes of these issues exist in the oral health care system as well. 

We hosted experts in the oral health system, policy and advocacy space. These experts included Dr. Eleanor Fleming, a registered public health dentist; Gloria Media, executive director at Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE); and Pareesa Charmchi Goodwin, executive director at the Connecticut Oral Health Initiative.  

Dr. Fleming began our time together by calling us to, “admit this issue [racism] exists in the oral health delivery system…” Dr. Fleming then continued with, “There are so few dental providers who are dental therapist and hygienist who are Black and brown and represent the communities they serve. As we explore this interaction of oral health policy and racial justice – I invite us to think about how racism works in oral health. How the system is built on whiteness?” 

Gloria Medina is a grassroots organizer and community leader in South-Central Los Angeles. She highlighted that the Black and brown communities SCOPE works with directly are experts in their experiences and should drive the organization's agenda. Misalignment between what communities need and how our dental health delivery system is structured is itself an example of institutional racism. Gloria emphasized how essential it is to incorporate grassroots community engagement every step of the way in their policy and advocacy work. This is a part of SCOPE’s strategy to move communities from being invited to tables to leading and building their own tables as a means to dismantle the pervasiveness of white supremacy.  

Pareesa Charmchi Goodwin emphasized to us that charity (e.g., free dental clinic days, free toothbrushes) is not a system nor a substitute for justice and that this narrative based on blame is a harmful fallacy. We learned that even in Connecticut, a place with plenty of dental providers who also accept Medicaid, accessibility remains an issue. The lack of dental homes in communities was pinpointed as a key issue.  

The call ended with an overview of dental therapy as a community-based solution for oral health access. Even in acknowledging its Alaskan Natives origins in the U.S., we continue to urge advocates to be mindful of how the impacts of racism and white supremacy can continue to co-opt the original intent of this provider from expanding access to something more exclusive. For example, leaving out participation of key community touch points such as community colleges.  

One of the policy demands from the Movement for Black Lives is, “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and the harming of Black people. As well as for these investments to be determined by Black communities…” Similarly, the oral health equity movement must be grounded in community engagement/collaboration, racial justice, and continuous learning and orienting. If not, then we will continue to miss the mark on dismantling racism in all facets of our society. This webinar was a reminder that health justice starts with the work we do with ourselves and the spaces we have access to, that we are not alone in this movement and through pushing forward, a better tomorrow becomes possible.