Speak up. When your cousin or auntie makes that homophobic, racist, sexist, or ableist joke, stop them in their tracks. If your coworker seems to be struggling with treating everyone fairly, speak up. There are lots of ways to correct people that you love. If you feel safe doing so, speak up when you’re at the grocery store and someone wants to walk around with her mask off. It’s no longer enough to just stand by and shake your head. Black people and other people of color have been victimized by our society AND have had to fight for their rights at the same time. It’s exhausting. We need more people to stand up for what we all know to be right and true.
Aspart of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Vick.
Nicole Vick has spent the last fifteen years providing tools and strategies to stakeholders, community-based organizations, and residents to improve health and prevent disease in some of Los Angeles County’s most underserved communities.
She also has 12 years of teaching experience. She is currently an adjunct professor in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College and has taught at Cal State LA, Ashford University, and the University of Phoenix.
Ms. Vick was most recently appointed to the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles and also serves on the board of directors for Public Health Advocates and Esperanza Community Housing, where she is Board Secretary. For two years she chaired the City of Los Angeles Health Commission, appointed by City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
Ms. Vick earned both her B.S. in Public Policy and Management and Master of Public Health degrees from the University of Southern California.
In her first book “Pushing Through: Finding the Light in Every Lesson” she shares both the heartbreaking pain and the extraordinary triumphs that led her to advocacy and social justice work. Her story takes place against the background of the long-neglected and overlooked community of South-Central Los Angeles, where she grapples with the grotesque imbalance of power and privilege as it unfolds in every aspect of her life and those around her.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s-1990s. I was so lucky to have my grandparents and great grandparents around. I loved going to their homes and looking through all the old Ebony and Jet magazines and all the old family photos. I remember the beautiful black baby grand piano and the World Book Encyclopedia at my grandparent’s house and my grandfather teaching me cool things like the word “gesundheit” and where Reykjavik was on a map. I can still hear my great grandmother asking me if I was going to go to college so I could be “Dr. Vick” and my great grandfather teaching me how to write a check when I was very little.
I lived with my parents and my little brother in an apartment building that my great grandparents built/owned. Because of my extended family, I was able to attend parochial school for most of my schooling (elementary and high school). I was the smart kid that won spelling bees and got straight A’s. I had lots of friends and loved to laugh, but I was also very unsure of myself and not very confident in my early years, largely due to my being overweight as a child. That lack of confidence got me into a bit of trouble in my senior year of high school. I ended up starting my first semester of college as a pregnant teenager.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of the books that had the biggest impact on me was the Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch. That book, along with a series of deep conversations with a friend of mine about 10–15 years ago, really forced me to rethink everything I thought I believed about religion and spirituality. It was a pivotal moment in my life because I was pushed to step outside of the box and consider that there were other possibilities besides the Christian upbringing that I was accustomed to.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite life lesson quote is “nothing beats a failure but a try”. It’s an amazingly simplistic quote, but it’s very true. The only way to truly move beyond failure or doubt is it try. There have been times in my life where I’ve been intimidated or scared by an experience and the only thing that has kept me pushing toward the goal is the thought that “I have to try if I don’t then I will never know”.
I was a 17-year-old pregnant college student back in 1996. I already felt out of place as a young black girl at a PWI (predominantly white institution). The irony is that I spent most of my childhood years less than 5 minutes from USC, but it might as well have been a million miles away. There I was, young and pregnant, feeling unwelcome and not very smart. One of my advisors suggested I take a leave of absence and it just wasn’t an option for me. As far as I know, college was the way to a better standard of living for myself and my daughter. I ended up having my daughter 2 months early on a Wednesday and returning to class the following Monday. I had to finish what I started, and failure was certainly not an option I wished to entertain.
“Nothing beats a failure but a try” also plays out in my professional endeavors. I’ve been flat out rejected for promotional opportunities and it was hurtful to know that I was qualified but the people in charge didn’t think so. Some people would give up. I just applied again and over the course of 2 years, I promoted 3 times. I still have one or two of those rejection letters as a reminder to not give up, to keep trying.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is more about everyone else and less about you. It’s less about being and more about doing. If you have to tell people you are a leader, you aren’t a leader. True leaders empower others to make decisions, to problem solve, to develop and use their talents to the best of their ability. I’ve been incredibly lucky. In my 15 years of working, I’ve had amazing supervisors that did all those things and more. I learned a lot and grew a lot. Most of the learning and growing I did was related to the field of public health, but I also learned how to behave professionally, how to express myself clearly, how to work towards what I wanted, and also how to inspire others just by being me.
I’ve also been fortunate to have examples of leaders in my personal life and in my community. My closest group of friends are all leaders in their own right and have amazing careers and skills. I also see the women in my community in leadership roles and it has been amazing. Women like Karen Bass, Holly Mitchell, and Aja Brown (a double Trojan like myself), all Los Angeles natives, all working to improve their respective communities. How could I not entertain the possibility that someday I may be among their ranks when they came from where I came from?
It took me quite a while to be comfortable with the idea that I am a leader. But when people come to you for help, information, your opinion, or to pick your brain, it’s pretty clear that you’re a leader. I do not take that lightly at all.
In life, we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?
There have been many people that have inspired and changed me. I’m most inspired by my maternal great-grandparents and grandparents, especially my great-grandmother. According to Census records, she was born in 1898 in Tennessee. Her family moved to Oklahoma at some point and my great grandmother married and had a daughter. From the stories I was told, my great grandmother was a cosmetologist and make-up artist; I’m pretty sure my love of fashion and beauty comes from her. In the early 1930s, she came to Los Angeles, opened a beauty salon with a friend, and got married to my great grandfather who was a realtor and business owner. They owned a Shell gas station on South Central Avenue (the community where Blacks lived, worked, and played) and built an entire block of apartment buildings. I have no idea how they were able to achieve so much during a time when there were so many barriers for black people.
My maternal grandfather inspired me as well. Several years ago I walked into the African American firefighter museum and was shocked. In the museum was a photo of my grandfather! He was on a water cannon. I had see this photo before in their home but no one had mentioned to me that he was in a museum! The curator told me that my grandfather integrated the fire station near LAX during his career (1945–1978). I cannot imagine what he went through on the job. He paid a high price and was part of the cohort of Black firefighters that paved the way for everyone else that came after.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
In my opinion, we are experiencing two very significant crises at the same time. COVID 19 hit and we weren’t prepared at any level for the magnitude of this pandemic. As the rates grew (and continue to grow), we started to see some interesting, but not surprising, things happen: disparities in death rates across the country and a growing level of irritation and downright anger about local efforts to control the disease. We were seeing the death rates for Blacks and Latinos several times higher than whites. Around the same time, protests in Michigan, Orange County (CA), and other parts of the country featured people angry that they couldn’t get a haircut and were forced to wear masks. Public health officials were challenged and some resigned for their safety or were forced out. The reality is that Blacks and Latinos often hold service jobs that place them at higher risk of COVID 19 infection. Although the desire to return to normalcy is certainly understandable, who would pay the ultimate price for some people’s semblance of normalcy?
The second crisis is the boiling over (again) of the continual fight for equity (not equality) and justice for Black people in this country. We’ve seen, since the beginning of this country’s history, the disregard for Black lives and things have once again come to a tipping point after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. How many times do we have to see a Black person die at the hands of the very people that are supposed to protect and serve? When will it end? The fact that this fight for justice and equity is occurring in the middle of a pandemic is quite an interesting thing. It serves as a reminder that Black people are not really ever safe. We’re either being disproportionately impacted by a pandemic or fighting against police brutality (among other human rights). As everything started to unfold, I thought about my maternal great grandparents and grandparents. I wondered how they would feel knowing that we’re still fighting for our humanity in 2020, that black men are still being lynched, that we still don’t have justice. I believe they would be deeply disappointed to hear that we’ve come so far in many respects, but still don’t have the rights that Black people have been fighting for many generations. My hope is that this is the last time we will have to fight because I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grow up being valued for who they are and not demonized because of their skin color.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
There are a few reasons:
- We have a huge problem with structural and institutional racism in all our systems that must be dismantled. Every system: education, law enforcement, religion, health care, housing have some serious issues that need to be addressed. There is something very wrong when all these systems are racist at their very core and yet the average person may not even understand how.
- Our schools are more segregated now than they were when my parents were in school. Segregated schools and communities do everyone a disservice. There is a missed opportunity for cultural exchange, shared learning, and equitable access to resources that are often only reserved for the wealthiest communities.
- Our education system doesn’t do a good enough job of teaching about American history and critical thinking among other things. Black history, Latino history, Asian history, and LGBTQ history is all part of American history and should be taught as such. Black history certainly shouldn’t only be taught in February. Other groups should also have adequate representation.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
Well, I am a Black woman, so I certainly understand and identify with the racial justice issues that are making headlines at the moment. I have never experienced overt racial discrimination but I am a product of a society that does not value people that look like me. The fact that I have “made it” doesn’t mean the system isn’t flawed. We need to create a world where every child that looks like me has the same opportunity to live a productive and healthy life.
The fact that I work in public health gives me more perspective on how all of this plays out. In my book, I talk about the difficult duality that I sit in. I understand the issues from a bird’s eye, academic level, but many of the issues impact me and people that look like me. In my book, I describe it as the “benefit of understanding it all and the burden of living it”. This plays out in my career quite often. When the news hit that Blacks were dying from COVID 19 at higher rates than other races, it hurt me. Blacks and other people of color were bearing the burden of disease. I was able to help with messaging to the community, my community about what was happening and what steps people could take to keep themselves safe and healthy. The other thing I do a lot of is educating. Fall semester is fast approaching and you better believe that most of my class time will be spent talking about COVID 19 and the response in the United States. My students last semester were so traumatized by what was happening, but they understood all the concepts I had taught them because they were literally LIVING it!
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Open your mind and your heart. That is the most important step that each of us can take. In my book, I talk about the danger of living in a box where everyone thinks like you and believes the same things you do. There are some things that are coming to light now that we are in the midst of a pandemic and the fight for racial justice that might feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s okay to feel a bit uneasy, scared, hostile, angry, defensive. You just can’t stay there. Seek out opinions and views that differ from yours. Ask questions (but be careful not to force others to do the heavy lifting for you). Ask why a viewpoint or opinion isn’t sitting well with you and explore where that is coming from. Many people never take the time to self-reflect and I think this will be one of the most important parts of healing our country. One of my other favorite quotes is from the Conversations With God book “if I do not go within, I go without”. You can’t expect to move forward and have the things you want in life if you don’t look inside yourself first.
- Learn as much as you can. There are so many books about social and racial justice from a variety of authors. I’d also suggest reading other types of books written by various ethnic groups. There are romance novels, sci-fi novels, and books in many other genres written by brilliant authors that don’t get as much notice as mainstream authors. Watch “Like Water for Chocolate” or “Insecure”, visit the African American museum or a Japanese museum in your community. Consider that other cultures’ experiences regarding historical events may be different than yours. Recognize that American history is not above everyone else’s. Become curious and full of wonder. Travel to other countries (after the pandemic is over) and learn how other people live.
- Use your immediate power to change your community. We cannot change the world. We’re individuals and our reach only goes so far. For some that are enough reason to throw in the towel and to go on with life as is. But, I believe we all have immediate power in our hands to create real change, right in our own backyards. Two years ago I decided I wanted to do my part in promoting women-owned businesses in my community. A friend of mine who has a fashion line suggested I hold a small pop up shop, so I opened up my backyard to the public and have hosted several of them. There are other organizations in my community doing the exact same thing on a larger scale. Doesn’t phase me. They have their audience, I have mine. We’re all working towards the same goal. If you’re a cook, teach teens or single moms how to shop for groceries and meal plans. If the young boy down the street needs a mentor, spend a few hours a week with him. If you believe in a local candidate, write a check or make a few phone calls. There are so many things that each of us can do to make our communities better.
- Become civically engaged. Notice I didn’t say “go vote”. Voting is very important, but what about being a part of the fight to shift the narrative about what gets voted on in the first place?One of my professors always says “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”. Why wait to see what your elected officials will decide is best for your community when you can work to set the agenda? Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water. Black residents in Lowndes, Alabama have hookworm (a disease that was eradicated years ago) because there isn’t an established septic system and people have to pump their waste out into their front yards. There are still children and families that were seeking asylum languishing in camps across the country. There is PLENTY of work to be done and ways to help. Be a part of those conversations to the extent that you are able.
- Speak up. When your cousin or auntie makes that homophobic, racist, sexist, or ableist joke, stop them in their tracks. If your coworker seems to be struggling with treating everyone fairly, speak up. There are lots of ways to correct people that you love. If you feel safe doing so, speak up when you’re at the grocery store and someone wants to walk around with her mask off. It’s no longer enough to just stand by and shake your head. Black people and other people of color have been victimized by our society AND have had to fight for their rights at the same time. It’s exhausting. We need more people to stand up for what we all know to be right and true.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
The ideas I have suggested are tangible and can be implemented immediately. Ordering a book from a black author from a black owned bookstore and starting to read it takes minimal effort. Opening your heart and mind can be uncomfortable, but it’s not impossible. Social media now makes it possible to connect with people in your community immediately to begin a project or a program such as a virtual book club, virtual discussion group, fundraiser, or affinity group.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am an optimistic person. There is an amazing documentary that’s about 12 years old called “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” and in it they talk about structural racism and other injustices that place certain people at a disadvantage. One of the experts talks about how racism can be undone. We created it and we can undo it. We’re not trying to unscramble an egg. We just have to be brave enough to want to dismantle the system that has created a hierarchy in this country based on race. The confederate flag and statutes are coming down. Communities are rethinking the role of the police. The current system can be undone. The question is, will we be courageous enough to do the heavy lifting to dismantle hundreds of years of unequal power and privilege?
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I am most impressed with the young people today. They are using their immediate power to make a change. These young people know how to work Twitter ( I don’t) and all the other social media platforms to get the message of change out there. They are out protesting, which I think is amazing. I want them to continue to fight for what is right and to stay encouraged despite what some of us older folks say. I think us “old folks” can be very discouraging to our young people. We are quick to put them down for being too superficial, for not taking a stance on anything, for being over engaged with their smartphones, and for not having a plan for their futures. We judge them harshly without examining the context of their lives and fully understanding their perspective.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet the Obamas and have a conversation with them. They are so inspiring.
How can our readers follow you online?
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicole-d-vick/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!