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Systems Science to Address Structural Racism

Kurt Stange and Heidi Guillet

Above: Authors of the study, Nova Scholar Kurt Stange, MD, PhD, and Fellow Heidi Gullet, MD, MPH.

August 23, 2023

Racism is increasingly recognized as a public health crisis throughout the United States. This powerful upstream determinant contributes to serious health inequities and adverse health outcomes for historically marginalized communities nationwide.  

Such complex public health issues as racism call for innovative, integrative approaches. Nova Fellow Heidi Gullet and Scholar Kurt Stange’s “Using Community-Based System Dynamics to Address Public Health Disparities,” published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, explores how Community-Based System Dynamics and systems science methods can be used to tackle challenging, deeply entrenched health disparities exacerbated by structural racism and demonstrates how to identify solutions. The authors highlight how this framework can be used to foster healthier communities and broader health equity through change in policy and practice.

Community-Based System Dynamics (CBSD) is a “participatory method for engaging and empowering diverse communities in systems thinking and action.” It employs a modeling approach that illuminates the intricate web of relationships within a system and their evolving patterns over time. It enables researchers and policymakers to visualize and understand complex relationships, feedback loops, and unintended consequences that perpetuate health disparities. It also offers decision makers the ability to simulate the effects of different strategies and gauge their potential impact, ensuring resources are channeled into initiatives with the highest likelihood for positive change.

Key Strengths of CBSD Identified in this Study

  • CBSD is a robust, innovative tool to comprehensively and visually model and address structural racism
  • CBSD engages those most impacted by structural racism to design and steer solutions and builds community capacity to understand complex systems and drive systemic change
  • Participatory methods such as CBSD offer promising foundations for community engagement and sustainable collective action and solutions
  • Simulation models of leverage points and possible solutions allow decision makers to measure potential impact and channel resources into solutions with highest likelihood of success

In this paper, Gullet and Stange explore the application of CBSD through initiatives formed in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Community members and groups organized under the nationwide Place Matters initiative in 2009, and in 2013, carried out the first community health status assessment, which underscored how the historical impact of racism affects health outcomes today. In 2014, Health Improvement Partnership-Cuyahoga (HIP-Cuyahoga) was formed as a cross-sectoral, county-wide health improvement collaborative and declared eliminating structural racism as a key priority to uplifting community health. 

Historically, interventions to such complex problems were developed in individual siloes, often missing large pieces of the puzzle and not involving community members. The CBSD model uses systems science and community engagement to identify the many, complex factors of health and present them visually in their dynamic relationships. 

In the early Group Model Building (GMB) sessions of this study, “the core modeling team identified racial trauma and healing as missing elements of the larger system map and developed a causal loop diagram showing the feedback mechanism resulting from racial trauma and from healing at multiple levels.” The project team involved community members throughout the process in a series of online workshops fostering community capacity and trust and developing a shared picture of racism in Cuyahoga County. This also allowed the modeling team to honor and incorporate the lived experiences and knowledge of community members and co-create a representation of racism based on the community’s first hand involvement.

The core modeling team created an initial working system map of structural racism and identified leverage points and possible policy and community-driven solutions to catalyze change, including efforts to address equity and access to housing, education, food, healthcare, and much more. Further GMB sessions revealed sub-systems, findings were reflected in subsequent causal loop diagrams, and simulation models built from these data will be used to test possible solutions and measure potential outcomes. These maps, diagrams, and models, and the trust and relationships built through the process, provide a framework for achieving policy change, capacity building, and racial equity. 

Dismantling structural racism and realizing racial equity is critical for public health. This study underscores how systems science and community partnerships can unravel complex relationships and drive equitable, sustainable solutions ranging from community initiatives to policy change. Embracing such robust, cross-sectoral methodologies could help pave the way for a brighter and healthier future for everyone.

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.