The kind of learning that really sets the Barger Leadership Institute apart from other opportunities is learning leadership through action. Being a student at the BLI presents so many unique ways to expand my worldview and leadership skills beyond the classroom. Events like the BLI’s Color of Care screening encourage students to challenge their perspectives and ideas about the way our world works, provoking a continuous process of critical reflection of our society. When the BLI staff invited me to participate in the community panel after the Color of Care screening, I was nervous yet excited for the chance to deepen my learning and critical consciousness through action. It is often easy to fall into the trap of withholding our thoughts and opinions due to fears of saying the wrong thing or even upsetting the people around us. I certainly have succumbed to that pitfall myself. Participating in the Color of Care community panel was a much-needed push for me to internalize that it is more important to have difficult conversations and share big (and sometimes radical) ideas, because true societal transformation comes when people are daring enough to think aloud. 

The BLI’s event provided that environment for deep thinking. These difficult yet important topics were presented openly, reflecting Oprah Winfrey’s intention behind the film that we often need to be uncomfortable to learn. While students can learn the statistics of health disparities in classes, these facts frequently become depersonalized into numbers. A core moment of learning for me, in my work as a patient advocate, is that storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to provoke change. Most of the film centered on specific families’ stories about medical encounters in which the patient was ignored, dismissed, and mistreated. The documentary uses storytelling methods to reveal issues like the unequal distribution of COVID tests, hospital systems refusing to confront their racist malpractice cases, and the institutional failure to properly respond to medical emergencies due to interpersonal prejudices. The documentary also talked about structural systems impacting health disparities such as redlining and zoning producing geographic disparities, the historical roots of gynecology, and unethical medical experiments creating mistrust of the healthcare system in affected communities. 

The Color of Care screening brings these real issues to an unavoidable medium, because these stories are not fictional–they’re lived experiences that still occur right now, and will continue to as long as our healthcare and social systems remain as they are. Systems function as they are designed to, so if we don’t like the outcomes, we need to transform the system itself. One of the other speakers, Rebecca Irby, and I talked about how health disparities can be traced in the US for as long as there is data on outcomes by race. We also spoke about how the roots of health inequities in the US go back to racial capitalism and chattel slavery. Solutions to closing health inequities look like transforming sectors like education, housing, environment, etc. because most of what impacts health occurs outside the healthcare system, and these gaps in outcomes are socially constructed. To have fewer stories like Gary Fowler’s, we need to transform—not reform—the social systems that actively engineer poor health in specific populations.

Becky Woolf is studying Sociology of Health and Medicine at the University of Michigan and is currently a Peer Facilitator at the Barger Leadership Institute. She is interested in pursuing a career working towards health equity on a national level, using public health and leadership to create a more accessible, fair health system. She had experience as the Co-Chair of ImproveCareNow's Patient Advisory Council, where she coordinates initiatives to improve the quality of care for patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Becky is also a Focus Group Leader for Women's Organization on Rights to Health (WORTH) on campus. Outside of class, you can find her studying on central campus or looking for the nearest coffee shop.