Confronting Injustice: Don't Let Fear Get You Down - National Commission on Correctional Health Care
Aug 12, 2020

Confronting Injustice: Don’t Let Fear Get You Down

by Robert M. Morris, MD, CCHP-P

Recent events in the United States have generated a lot of conversations about racism, a plea for ongoing discus­sions, and calls for change.

Fear can be a powerful impedi­ment to dialogue about racism. Fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of being challenged, fear of losing a friend or a job – those fears are real. Saying nothing is so much easier: “No one else seems to mind. Why stick out my neck? We’ve always done it this way. I’m sure ‘they’ know better.” Speaking out can be lonely and risky.

I observe that same fear and reticence in many areas of cor­rections. The fear of negative consequences and the need for courage to speak up are the same, whether the issue is blatant racism, more subtle bias, an unfair policy, or some other sort of behavior or injustice.

The question is: How do we react when we see wrongs being perpetrated? What do we do when we witness rac­ism, poor policies, or plain old rudeness? Do we speak up and make an effort to correct wrongs?

As Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, points out in “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” silence has a price. When we fail to speak up – about racism, inap­propriate cultural biases, prejudiced behavior, poor or nega­tive policies – the result is a loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a danger of increasing tides of fear and pos­sibly violence. Failure to speak up can alienate us from others, especially our patients, and ironically can lead to burnout: “Things are awful here. I hate working in this dysfunctional organization. I am powerless to make needed changes.”

That pattern can happen to anyone – staff members, managers, supervisors, and other leaders.

How can we begin to think about addressing needed changes? Here are my suggestions:

Form alliances with like-minded coworkers, as well as others inside and outside your organization, to discuss mutual concerns and possible solutions for improvement. Don’t condemn yourself to isolation. Change work is tiring so look to your community and create a network of sup­port. You only need a few people to keep you going.

Participate in NCCHC events. Communicate with oth­ers through NCCHC’s online community, Connect. Join the Academy of Correctional Health Professionals or the American College of Correctional Physicians. Identify a mentor. Look for champions who have been successful.

Turn to the NCCHC standards and position statements for guidance.

Build on momentum. Success in making even small changes results in an improved sense of empowerment, confidence, and self-worth. Success is a stimulus for con­tinuing to work for improvements and a connection to others who share the same values.

Identify your strengths and use them. It can feel like there are too many problems to address and you can’t fix every­thing. Concentrate instead on one or a few problems that are important to you and have the potential for change. Do the right thing by responding to your inner truth.

If you are in a supervisory or management position, sugges­tions for change and interventions might make you uncom­fortable. But that is the only way progress can happen. If you are challenged, try to avoid defensiveness. If you can welcome criticism, suggestions, and input from employees, you will find that a collaborative organization functions more effectively and smoothly. For example, an improved procedure or policy may cost more upfront but can pre­vent larger expenses in the future.

If you make a mistake or a wrong decision or inadver­tently offend someone, apologize and move on.

Working for change takes hard work and energy, but not as much as the energy it takes to maintain a sense of resigna­tion and defeat. And the results are much more rewarding.

Robert E. Morris, MD, CCHP-P, is the 2020 chair of NCCHC’s board of directors and board liaison of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. This column first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of CorrectCare, Vol. 34, Issue 3.

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