To overcome health and racial disparities in Minnesota, we must shift the narrative about how they are addressed by amplifying the voices of communities to speak their truth. 

By Heaven Aschalew

We have all heard the disturbing paradoxes Minnesota continues to exhibit when it comes to health. It is one of the healthiest states in the county, while being home to some of the worst inequities. This is particularly true when it comes to people who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander and other communities of color. You have likely heard some of the sobering truths that underscore these inequities – from income, with the typical Black family in Minneapolis earning less than half as much as the typical white family in any given year, to housing, with homeownership among Black families one-third the rate of white families. And when it comes to health outcomes, Indigenous Minnesotans suffer from diabetes and chronic liver disease at four and six times the rate of the general population respectively – despite there being no biological reason for this to be the case. However, it’s not just the injustices themselves that are problematic, it’s also how we tell that story. 

To understand and address these inequities, one important step is to delve into who is shaping the narrative and telling the stories we hear. Oftentimes stories are being told about a community, instead of by the community being impacted. Broadening who the storytellers are is an essential step in changing the dominant narrative we often see and hear – because without centering the community, we’re missing an essential part of the story.

One area where I’ve seen this occur is through my research in the Cedar-Riverside community, a Minneapolis neighborhood that has been severely impacted by health disparities but has only recently received the bare minimum of assistance.  Some of the most pressing health issues in this community are reducing the disparities in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension outcomes for Africans and African Americans. 

When comparing the rate of African and African American populations being affected by these health issues to white counterparts, African Americans have a considerably higher probability of being afflicted. One major factor contributing to this is a lack of access to the things needed to be healthy, including employment opportunities that provide affordable health care coverage and access to fresh, healthy, affordable food. Without health insurance coverage, it becomes incredibly difficult to afford treatments or services to identify cancer, heart disease, or other illnesses early on. And a lack of access to healthy food often leads to disproportionate rates of chronic disease, since healthy foods are key for a healthy life. 

How does this relate to changing the narrative? Because without centering the voices of the community, we lose essential parts of the story. For example, when a new report comes out detailing rates of chronic disease, we’ll often hear headlines about which racial and ethnic groups have higher rates of disease compared to the white population. But that’s often where the story ends, so we miss out on critical context for this information. We don’t hear why this is the reality for many communities. We don’t hear about things like social determinants of health, or how inequitable employment opportunities, poverty, environmental racism and a lack of culturally competent clinical care contribute to these health inequities. Without this broader story, people are left to draw their own conclusions.

That’s why having diverse storytellers is essential in order to know the whole story. It’s why the Sahan Journal is such an important media outlet. And its why the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has partnered with ThreeSixty Journalism for the past five years, in support of their efforts to help shape a future media that is reflective of Minnesota’s rapidly diversifying population. 

The ThreeSixty Journalism program at the University of Saint Thomas provides youth with the opportunity to explore and improve their journalism abilities via various multimedia camps. This curriculum provides students with the chance to become storytellers, to have a voice, and know their community better. ThreeSixty recently partnered with Blue Cross to help students create videos centered on the topic of health equity and interviewed a range of leaders from networks that strive to offer health justice. 

As a ThreeSixty alum, I know firsthand the positive impact of these multimedia camps. They empower students to feel like actual journalists, with a responsibility to ensure that a story is communicated. It was incredible to acquire the experiences of interviewing people, writing articles, becoming my own news anchor, recording a radio broadcast segment, editing videos and much more. With a program like this, young people will be able to grow into a phenomenal new generation of journalists, changing the dominant narrative and helping Minnesota more fully recognize, understand and overcome the inequities that exist in our state.  

About the author: Heaven Aschalew is a strategic communications intern at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.