If you happen to order a late night meal just before a restaurant closes, you might be eating and then realize the “OPEN” sign you’re seeing inside the restaurant means anyone trying to get a meal at that hour sees a “CLOSED” sign on the outside.

That’s what happened to Camara Jones, APHA’s immediate past president, when she was in medical school and walked to a nearby restaurant with friends who had been studying together in her apartment, where the cupboards were bare.

That two-sided, OPEN/CLOSED sign illustrates racism, Jones told a standing-room-only crowd at yesterday’s Annual Meeting workshop, “Racism: Its impact on you and your work.” Sponsored by APHA’s Public Health Nursing Section, the workshop offered a powerful conversation on what we all can do to name racism, address it and, hopefully, move our society closer to one in which health equity is the norm.

Continuing with her OPEN/CLOSED analogy, Jones explained that racism structures a dual reality. Many of those inside the restaurant at the “table of opportunity” don’t even know there’s a two-sided sign. “It is difficult to recognize a system of inequity that privileges us,” she said to murmurs of agreement from the crowd. But if you’re standing outside, hungry and unable to get in, you’re painfully aware of that two-sided sign, she said.

Jones, who noted this was her third talk of the day on racism, didn’t stand at the lectern and give a speech. She paused often to ask audience members their thoughts. And people had plenty to say about how they’ve encountered ugliness in the workplace, in their communities and even in simply trying to help someone on the path to better health. They talked of being frustrated by sexism, discriminated against because of gender identity or not being taken seriously at work because they didn’t fit the mold of what their boss considered as “professional.”

Jones said if we address racism, other “isms” like sexism will follow.

“We need to all at least be anti-racists,” said Jones, who has published extensively on the topic, including in the American Journal of Public Health in 2000, and led a national campaign to address racism during her tenure as APHA president. The Public Health Nursing Section held a similar racism workshop at last year’s Annual Meeting, sponsoring yesterday’s because of high demand, said Past Section Chair Pat Kelly.

Before breaking up into small groups to talk about ways we can be part of the solution, many attendees stepped up to a microphone to share their ideas. PHN Section Chair-Elect Lisa Campbell said she was in a local Waffle House earlier in the day and thought it would be a great setting for public health outreach.

“We need to look in unlikely places to improve the health of people,” Campbell said. “Look for unlikely partners with fresh eyes. That’s what we’re called on to do.”

She said it’s important to ask yourself: “Who is sitting at our dinner tables? Is it only people who look like me?”

I believe we all can make a difference, and so does Jones. You can watch a video recording of the first hour of the workshop (skip to 9:40 when Jones begins speaking). Trust me, it’s worth a listen.