Two hands in blue gloves making a heart sign
Dr. Karla McCullough, executive director of the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation, says Mississippi should embed core “humanizing factors” into our varying service support systems to improve relations and engagement within our communities, especially communities of color. Photo by Anton on Unsplash

A Dehumanization Framework in Support of Mississippi Families of Color 

Mississippi’s long history of health disparities and inequities continues to burden children and families of color. 

Our state faces a specific set of challenges when it comes to moving the needle on national rankings in health, education and poverty outcomes. U.S. News reported that Mississippi ranks 50th in health care, 43rd in education and 49th in economy. The Mississippi State Department of Health also recognizes health disparities in marginalized communities, which contribute to the significant levels of exclusion and discrimination historically rooted in our service delivery system.

Many of Mississippi’s poor health outcomes are due to the social determinants of health,” MSDH’s health equity data site states. “Social determinants of health (food security, public transportation, workplace safety, affordable housing, violence and crime, education, job opportunities and income) are the conditions in which people are born, work, grow and age.They are pivotal to individual health and community well-being, and their impact is just as great as biological health factors.” 

The data continue to explain how the condition of these communities, particularly pronounced in racial and ethnic minority populations, is shaped by the distribution of wealth, power, and resources at the federal, state and local levels. 

While there is a need for support services that enable families to reach their respective potential, are we certain that their engagement with these systems provide positive and productive experiences? 

Determinants are factors that can influence a person’s health. While the focus of health interventions has typically been, who people are and what they do, the conditions in which they are born, grow, live, work and age are critically important in determining the health of individuals and communities. Courtesy of “Let’s Learn Public Health” created by Dr. Ranil Appuhamy, voiceover by James Clark

Understanding Dehumanization As A Framework

The term “dehumanization” may seem a bit drastic for some, but this framework is not meant to be a radical notion, nor is it a series of accusations toward systems designed to support families in Mississippi. After several considerations in defining and understanding this term, we settled on “The Cycle of Dehumanization.” 

This reference from Forward Promise defines dehumanization as the persistent invalidation of humanity through actual treatment. Further, it is the pervasive idea that people of color are not worthy of basic human dignities. At JSDF, we define this cycle of dehumanization for youth and families of color in Mississippi as the persistent messaging of invalidation (perceived or real) when negative or challenging interactions occur within systems designed to provide support services that improve quality of life indicators (education, health and wellness, criminal justice etc.). 

As executive director of the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation, I and the organization are committed to understanding and amplifying voices of families across varying demographics on health equity issues and other social determinants. This work allows us an opportunity to assess whether families who engage with support services and educational systems experience feelings of dehumanization. 

We ask the question: Do families who need the most help from support systems leave that experience feeling valued, seen and supported? 

Humanizing Support With Our Communities In Mind

Think back to a point in your life when you were really in need of help. Maybe there was a family member or a close acquaintance you could broach the issue with, without judgment, and be OK. Now imagine not having that level of support and having to share deeply personal information in order to get help, just to be ridiculed and judged. Imagine the overwhelming voices in your head, echoing feelings of shame and judgment. 

“As executive director of the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation, I and the organization are committed to understanding and amplifying voices of families across varying demographics on health equity issues and other social determinants,” Dr. Karla McCullough writes. Courtesy Juanita Sims Doty Foundation

We understand that systems are often short staffed, overworked and completely stressed out! However, families seeking assistance deserve to feel that taking this bold step to get help, is the right move.The kind of engagement provided when families are most vulnerable can either reinforce negative narratives or start a new beginning.

The American College of Physicians speaks to the importance of universal access to high-quality health care that reduces non-financial barriers, which could end discrimination based on personal characteristics. In our initial pilot data, we gauged responses from more than 111 survey participants on their experiences with engagement, interaction and navigating support services. More than 44% in each category reported challenges to navigating systems and maintaining services—approximately 41% were college educated, African American females. 

Ultimately, how individuals and families are seen and valued have deeper implications than their need to seek support. There are far-reaching considerations for families, schools and communities. We owe it to our residents to ensure that we embed core “humanizing factors” into our support systems that allow improved relations and engagement.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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