What does it mean to be equitable during these times? I have wrestled with this question throughout my career, especially over the past six months. In January, I started as executive director of the Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation. Our mission is to elevate the well-being of all Coloradans by advancing oral health equity. To achieve this mission, we certainly have to understand oral health, but, perhaps more important, we must understand the concept of equity. We are constantly asking the questions about what is fair, just, and impartial.
Reflecting on those questions now in relation to the murder of George Floyd, I understand that what we witnessed were haunting images and sounds of the realities of the inequity and racial injustice within our system. They are a vivid reminder that the human laws and structures we’ve created are not in alignment with the natural laws that are inherent by virtue. One thing is for certain, there will never be equity without equal access to justice.
Racism is a persistent and wretched enemy of equity, an unfortunately prevalent theme in our country’s story. The deep scars of slavery and oppression are manifest today. It is our job as practitioners of equity to help heal those wounds and move us forward.
Oral health and the health care system in general are certainly not immune to the disparities within our systems. Our partners at the Center for Health Progress called attention to dental workforce data from 2018 that showed that only 2% of all oral health practitioners in Colorado are people of color. A huge disparity and certainly a part of the reason why 51% of African Americans visited the dentist compared to 66% of all Coloradans in 2018.
In February, our team was strategizing new programs to reach historically overlooked populations and those experiencing inequity due to race, ethnicity, socio-economic status or age and developing plans for new ways to reach rural populations. Everything changed in March. COVID-19 pushed us into a new environment disrupting many paths toward achieving equity. Suddenly, thousands were facing a health crisis, and the lives of so many vulnerable individuals were put at risk. Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors throughout the state lost their jobs. Fear and trauma were seeping in, and the dominoes are still toppling today.
In mid-March, I was invited to serve on the State of Colorado’s COVID-19 Relief Fund impact grant review committee, which entailed reading hundreds of grant proposals from around the state. In my 14 years living in Colorado I have never witnessed such rapid fracturing of our institutions and the resulting need. I’m proud to be part of this team of dedicated individuals from around the state. I’m also proud that the funds have been prioritized to meet the needs of our black and brown populations and organizations led by people of color.
By April, Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation committed to being responsive and accountable to the needs of our grantees, and we responded swiftly to the challenges they were facing. With many oral health care practitioners shut down during the stay-at-home order, we shifted grant requirements, provided general operating support, and offered advances to current grantees serving growing public health needs. We also saw the all-too-familiar data about how systemic disparities were making Black and Latinx Coloradans more prone to experiencing COVID-19 at higher rates.
Based in part on feedback from current grantees, we intentionally shifted our funding strategy to prioritize supporting vital services and accessible care for those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In May, we launched a $2-million responsive funding opportunity designed to support organizations uplifting underserved communities through wraparound services. Additionally, the Foundation launched a $7.5-million low-interest, loan program for dental practitioners in Colorado. Through this program-related investment, we hope we can help many independent dental practices throughout the state keep their doors open. These efforts were coordinated as part of Delta Dental of Colorado’s $30-million commitment to community, customer, and provider relief efforts around COVID-19.
Even as the world seems to be turning upside down, one thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to serving the needs of equitable oral health care practices across our state. We’re working with our nonprofit and public practices to ensure dental providers and clinics have personal protective equipment to help bring care where it’s needed most. We’re continuing to look at every option to do our part for Colorado.
As we continue to navigate this current environment, I remain hopeful that the path forward is an equitable one. Our Founding Fathers, although imperfect, established the guidepost in promoting the principle that all humans are created equal and Abraham Lincoln further clarified in 1857:
“The Founders did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments or social capacity…They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
We have a humanitarian and patriotic duty to preserve the idea of equity in our society and our systems. I am the proud son of Pakistani immigrants, raised in rural Wyoming. My life and the opportunities I’ve had are a direct result of my parents and their ability to overcome obstacle after obstacle. I have been blessed and so I wish to serve my community and remove barriers to opportunity for those who have been short-changed by our system. I am personally dedicated, and, to me, there is nothing more challenging and American than pursuing and promoting justice and equity.
I spent 10 years of my career serving as a program director for nonprofit organizations. I’ve written hundreds of grants as an applicant; I fully understand the struggle and power dynamics that exist. I can already say that the team and board here at the Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation holds itself to being fair, just, and impartial in our relationships and how we provide funding. This part of our work is truly critical, and I am encouraged to see such dedication.
This work is never completed, it is challenging, and the strategies change with circumstances. As Frederick Douglass said, “If there is not struggle, there is no progress.” I’m hopeful that the recent protests and cries for justice will help us collectively move in the direction toward a more equitable future. The work is difficult, but the goal remains to augment the happiness, opportunity, and value of life for all people. Right now, we have an opportunity to stand up and fight for a better way forward. It is through justice that we will achieve our greatest prosperity, for injustice is surely a path to ruin.
Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation is committed to addressing oral health inequities and supporting community-based solutions that elevate the well-being of all Coloradans. Learn more at: https://www.deltadentalcofoundation.org/.