Perhaps, like me, you get invitations to meetings where you’re not convinced it will be time well spent, but you acquiesce nevertheless. Minnesota nice is my excuse.

When a health futurist comes calling, the temptation to invent excuses looms larger still. And as much as I’m hard pressed to say no to collaborating on health equity, it was when Jonathan Peck, the president of the Institute for Alternative Futures, said, “you’ll be sitting where Abe Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation,” that I decided to book the flight to Washington.

With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 35 of us visited the Lincoln Cottage, a hilltop retreat overlooking D.C. where Lincoln found solace, but also connected more closely with people during the Civil War. Four years ago, our group was there to inaugurate a national dialogue on health equity. Later dubbed the “Lincoln Cottage Assembly,” we were welcomed by Peck at the staircase Lincoln climbed every day to write about the most vexing issue of his time. Up we went, gripping the same handrail Abe did, to discuss equality. I’m recalling the meeting today in the context of how often we interjected race and issues of racism into our recently completed HEROForum20. Our recurrent references to Breonna Taylor, John Lewis and George Floyd at this 2020 conference made me mindful of my favorite teachers at Lincoln Cottage. They role-modeled what “allyship” looks like, though at the time I didn’t have that word for it.

First, here’s what I expected when I showed up at that assembly. This first convening meeting would be seeded with inexcusably smart, unusually diverse, superbly passionate advocates for equity. Check. (I snuck into the tent due to the last attribute only.) The meeting would be shrewdly and purposefully facilitated. Check. There would be proclamations made, priorities set and promises to keep. Check, check and check.

Here’s what I didn’t see coming: A big dose of health equity inspiration by the name of Federico Spry, a barber who cuts hair for about 50 people a day in Hyattsville, Maryland.

My left elbow rubbed Freddie Spry’s much of the day. To my right was a corporate medical director and researcher I’ve followed for much of my career. Beside Freddie was Dr. Stephen Thomas, the professor who dreamt up the idea that if inequity in colorectal cancer resides in the black community, then why not train hair stylists as health educators? The impact of such an approach is easily understood when you get to experience the amity and respect a barber can evoke as I did throughout the day. And I loved watching the allyship between an acclaimed professor and a grassroots leader like Spry. Allyship is a trending term referring to how white people can be helpful, trusted and persevering allies to people of color. Though both Thomas and Spry are Black, if I’m to name someone I’m eager to model myself after as an ally it’s Thomas. When I think of someone who is a great teacher about what a person of color wants from an ally, it is Spry.

You can see how Dr. Thomas’ Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland co-mingles with Spry’s “The SHOP” on YouTube. As one of the barbers in the video says, “You say stuff in here you may not say somewhere else.” Such a place-based campaign was a hopeful approach a few years ago to be sure, but certainly not the first time a school of public health has landed a clever, peer-led research and demonstration project in the heart of a community. It is today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the prescience and genius of Thomas’ allyship with barbers is increasingly apparent. Watch “Healthcare’s New Home: A Barbershop Story” to learn why barbers are so well positioned to mitigate community spread. Thomas describes how “the brothers in the shop” are testing for COVID and educating about the importance of influenza vaccines and forthcoming Coronavirus vaccines. At a time when the pandemic is shining a bright light on health disparities, the crisis is exacerbated by a dark cloud of conspiracy theories and distrust in experts. Thomas and Spry are showing how the black culture turns to “places of refuge” when looking for trustworthy advice (see “Black Barberships Join COVID-19 Fight”). Says Thomas: “It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger,” and in these videos you’ll will see why Thomas is convinced. “You need to engage people in the community who already have trust.”

The Strength of Weak Ties

Rachel Chong and Federico SpryAs if interacting with Thomas and Spry wasn’t already a master class in allyship, it was the woman sitting at the table across from us who made me feel confident that this Cottage Assembly and our lofty pursuit of justice were poised to transcend proclamations. Rachel Chong isn’t someone you would strap too much weight on at first glance but her small frame belies a mighty inner flame. That the organization she founded is called “Catchafire” betrays aspirations that may well be as much about destroying complacency in the private sector as about her organization’s stated goal of matching talented professionals to worthy causes. But it was Chong’s business bona fides that stoked my optimism when I watched her and Freddie interact. Fast Company named Chong among their “100 Most Creative People in Business;” she’s a “NYC Venture Fellow,” a “Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award” winner and was a “Young Global Leader” at the World Economic Forum. That’s just to name a few accolades that peg her as a business leader to watch.

I’ve written about the “Strength of Weak Ties” in the past. It is a term coined by sociologist Mark Granovetter (pdf) suggesting that some populations are more likely to be reached via weak social ties than strong. Professor Thomas is the first to concede that his community-based approach can attract grant funding where he has strong ties, but that scalability and sustainability are a reach. But for Chong, scalability is the fire she pours fuel over every day.

What happens when a barber, a professor and an entrepreneur walk into a room? I observed that an authentic form of allyship can walk out.

One of the commitments I made before leaving the Cottage Assembly was to write vision and commitment statements dedicated to making progress toward health equity and prosperity.

My vision is that all workplaces will embrace allyship such that those in the “in group” make it their business to support “out groups” and take a stand against racism and injustice.

My commitment is to do what I can to get more Thomases, Chongs and Sprys in rooms together.

What’s yours?

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