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By Ryan Smith

Books have always held a powerful place for me, one of learning beyond my own experience and education. As a white male growing up in rural Wisconsin, I rarely, if ever, held conversations about racism or inequality. Frankly, almost everyone I interacted with was white. As such, without books, I would have never understood what professor Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, meant when he says: “To grow up in America is for racist ideas to constantly be rained on your head and you have no umbrella. And you don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas because the racist ideas cause you to imagine that you’re dry. And then someone comes along and says, ‘You know what? You’re wet! And these racist ideas are still raining on your head! And here’s an umbrella.’” 

And so before books, I had clearly racist ideas, ideas that kept me blind to the true discrimination faced by communities of color. I was a person who once said–in defense of my own morality–“I don’t see color.” I know, too, that to exist in America even now is to continue to have racist ideas, even as I try to root them out. I am deeply grateful when my friends call me out on these ideas without judgement or shame, often at the expense of their own time and energy.

My first experience with a book, as Kendi says, ‘giving me an umbrella’ was the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explaining his experience as a black man in American in the book Between the World and Me. This book, structured as a letter to his son, portrayed racism as a ‘pillaging of black bodies.’  It was this connection to the body–to my identity as a healer of bodies in physical therapy–that led me to feel American racial inequality in a visceral way. 

How poignant then that Coates, as it turns out, was born in Baltimore and here I am serving the greater-Baltimore community, hundreds of miles away from my hometown of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Even now I am learning about Coates’ world and the world of so many in our Howard County community. Recently, I read Stamped from the Beginning–by Ibram X. Kendi–and I was moved by his detailed account of racist ideas throughout American history. This story was eye-opening and tragic for me. In particular, I learned that the ‘father’ of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, experimented on enslaved black women to develop methods for improving the health of white women, and form a women’s health institute. 

As someone who has built their career thus far working specifically with women’s health, I was horrified that this inequality sits at the very roots of our health care. Ultimately, racism was the seed for the science we work with now.

And so, in the end, it is not only that Black Lives Matter but also that the quality of those black lives matters. I believe as a health professional–and business owner of Recharge–that I have a role in fundamentally improving the quality of people’s health and lives. I have a responsibility to the quality of black lives and, even broader, to the quality of life for all people of color. As such, it pains me that the current community demographic at Recharge does not reflect the more diverse demographic of Howard County. 

We have much work to do and, as an owner and leader of Recharge, I plan to look inward at how our programming and outreach is supporting–or not–the inclusivity of our community. In particular, I pledge to examine and make changes in:

  • The composition of our staff. As you well know, our staff does not reflect the diversity of our Howard County community. I aim to improve outreach to support more diverse PT interns and, in the coming months, examine how we hire and recruit new staff.

  • Our participation in the greater-Baltimore area’s community health. Developing a relationship with the Horizon Foundation, a Howard County organization that is already doing great work for equity in health outcomes, to find out how Recharge can be a part of improving community health. On a personal level, I also plan to continue my financial support of MissionFit Baltimore, an organization that strengthens the youth of Baltimore and educates future coaches through a positive fitness environment.

  • My personal engagement in local politics. I believe that health starts with the design of our streets and public transportation. As I become more ingrained in the Howard County community (I am coming up on three years living here), I commit to engaging in local politics that will influence transportation policy. A few of our members who have been with us from the beginning will chuckle at this last point. When I first came to Howard County I was void of participation in local politics as I felt I wasn’t a part of the community and to be frank, I was lazy. I hope I have grown, as Recharge has grown, to take on responsibility as a leader in our community at Recharge, and the greater community around us. 

Finally, and most importantly, I want to acknowledge that this issue is not new. As recently as five years ago, there were nationwide protests surrounding the death of a black man in our own community–Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. in Baltimore, who would have been almost the same age as me if he were alive today. And there have been others too, as far back as Emmitt Till and even further back into our nation’s legacy of slavery. In all of this time, the proposed and enacted reforms have failed to protect the quality of black lives. We must do better. I ask you, as the community of Recharge, to hold us–your coaches and leaders–accountable to doing better. We will, of course, aim to hold ourselves accountable and this letter to you is the first step of that.  

Ultimately, we must not let this fight to end inequality and racism fade from our organization as it will inevitably fade from the news cycle–at least until the next death comes along. In six months, in twelve months, we will still need to continue. And we will. 

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