City of Cleveland takes heed, declares racism a public health crisis

In October 2019, during a summit on equality, YWCA of Greater Cleveland and First Year Cleveland made the call for Cleveland to declare racism a public health crisis.

Eight months later, in the midst of a pandemic and nationwide societal upheaval after mortal police brutality in Minneapolis, Cleveland City Council has answered that call.

Resolution No. 296-2020, introduced on March 2, and unanimously adopted on Wednesday, June 3, states that the city declares racism as a public health crisis and will establish a working group to promote racial equality.

<span class="content-image-text">Councilmen Blaine Griffin</span>Councilmen Blaine Griffin“[The YWCA and First Year] was the group that we began working with to craft this legislation,” says Cleveland Ward 6 city councilperson Blaine Griffin, who sponsored the resolution with council members Basheer Jones and Kerry McCormack. “I just asked that we look at all areas of racism—lead, infant mortality, police reform.”

The resolution, Griffin says, acknowledges that racism does exist and has caused irreparable harm to African Americans and Latino populations. It also allows the issue to be viewed from the perspective of public health.

The resolution is the just the first step of many. “This can’t be a document that lives on paper and collects dust on the shelves,” Griffin stresses. Next steps include convening partners to look at best practices across the country, examining a Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), hearing from local experts, and bringing the best minds to the table.

“We know we have to have community input from all to be successful,” Griffin says. “I want to see change people can really touch, feel and see.”.

One of Griffin’s wishes is that the city name a chief equity officer and reconfigure current offices. During a recent City Club conversation Griffin announced Natoya Walker-Minor is leading the charge.

Because the resolution calls for Cleveland City Council assemble the ordinances needed to address the issues, Griffin says they plan to look at the complete landscape of city ordinances to see what can be changed to make them more equitable.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones</span>Cleveland Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones“For me, this legislation, it’s a way to repair the damage racism has had on black and brown people,” says Jones, who has consistently pushed for diversity. “We are all victims—white women, black women, black and brown men, everyone except white men.”

Yet Jones is optimistic about the resolution. “In Cleveland, this is the first step toward wiping away systematic racism,” he says.

More than 20 organizations have signed on in support of the legislation since it was adopted last week.

“The community has to keep their foot in our backside to get this done,” warns Jones. “We can’t allow people to just talk. This isn’t about an election. I’m going to be on top of it. We can do something right now. Every person and organization signing on, including the city, I want to know what’s your plan to address this or that.”

The Cleveland Clinic is just one of the 23 organizations supporting the resolution. Dr. Adam Myers is Cleveland Clinic’s chief of population health and director of Cleveland Clinic Community Care.

“The structure and design of our society from slavery to Jim Crow, redlining and what we are experiencing now has placed African Americans at a significant disadvantage for hundreds of years,” Myers says. “Those disparities led to an increase in prevalence of chronic disease and requires us to address the underlying cause.”

Myers says there has been research around the social determinants of health that found when people lack adequate access to housing, education, and healthcare, they suffer. “By the time they see a physician, the damage from the disparity has been done.”

Myers expressed gratitude on behalf of the Clinic to Griffin and Jones for the boldness they showed in leading the charge to declare racism a public health crisis.

Myers adds that the Clinic will begin to look internally to examine their own practices to ensure they are culturally sensitive and inclusive and will launch a team to focus on the issue.

“It’s important for us to examine and determine what our biases are and work to mitigate them,” says Myers. “We have to look at our own hearts to understand what it means to be African American.”

Myers said the Clinic also wants to encourage safety so people can openly express the anger and hurt they’ve experienced. “Our hope is to move towards a more equitable society,” he says. “We want to be in the effort and that’s what we intend to do.”

<span class="content-image-text">State Rep. Stephanie Howse (District 11)</span>State Rep. Stephanie Howse (District 11)In addition to organizational support, the city of Akron, as well as members of the Ohio legislative body are following suit. “We have a companion resolution,” says State Rep. Stephanie Howse. “There are versions in both the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate.”

Senate hearings on the topic were heard on Tuesday, June 9 and will continue next week.

“We need this for Ohio,” says Howse. “One thing we need to look at is the conditions African Americans are living in and the disparities. They didn’t happen overnight.”

Howse says systems at the local, state, and national level need to be addressed. “But first, the government has to acknowledge the problem,” she adds.

Howse is optimistic about Ohio adopting the declaration, knowing the state’s legislators work for the people and “the will of the people are speaking,” she says. “When we’re not where we need to be, the people will push us. Now, we have a broader coalition in agreement.”

Rhonda Crowder
Rhonda Crowder

About the Author: Rhonda Crowder

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."