Cleveland goes public with plans to address racism as a public health crisis
Aside from a few presentations to city council and community members, the working group established by Cleveland City Council’s 2020 declaration of racism as a public health crisis has mostly kept its work to itself.
The group, known as the Racism as a Public Health Crisis Coalition (RAPHC-C), did give a presentation to city council’s Health, Human Services, & the Arts committee in May 2022, and in October, the group’s co-chair, Marsha Mockabee, spoke at a Cleveland Leadership Center webinar.
But Friday’s “Racism as a Public Health Crisis: Town Hall Update” at the Jerry Sue Thornton Center at Cuyahoga Community College, was the group’s “first time coming out in this kind of public way to talk about RAPHC,” Mockabee said at the event, using the acronym for the phrase “racism as a public health crisis.” She said that the event was an “appetizer” for more community engagement later on.
It was a long-awaited event. RAPHC-C initially planned to hold a town hall in October 2022. Leaders told The Land in summer 2022 that they were expecting the town hall to happen closer to the end of that year. The group also planned to publish a report before the town hall, but it has yet to do so.
About 50 people attended the four-hour-long event, which was sold out online by the day before. Admission was free, but guests had to register in advance. The Cleveland Office of Minority Health partnered with RAPHC-C to put on the event. April is Minority Health Month, and the event was part of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health’s programming for the month.
Mockabee kicked off the event with a description of what RAPHC-C is, and what it has set out to do. The group is focusing on identifying systemic barriers and ways to advance equity within five specific areas: health, public health; housing, environment & infrastructure; education; economic mobility, wealth creation & workforce development; and criminal justice.
The five areas are based on the social determinants of health, which are the factors in a person’s daily life — such as where they live, work, and play — that affect their health and well-being. The result of systemic racism, disparities within these social determinantsshow up in Cleveland, where Black residents have lower life expectancies, higher likelihood of chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure, and lower median incomes.
Rather than trying to find short-term solutions, the group is doing long-term work, said Mockabee, who also serves as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland. That means the process will take time, she said.
Cleveland City Council proposed legislation declaring racism a public health crisis in March 2020, and the resolution passed in June of that year, after the murder of George Floyd. That resolution established RAPHC-C as a working group to lead the efforts. RAPHC-C received $200,000 from the city of Cleveland and $250,000 from JP Morgan Chase for 2021 and 2022, Mockabee said at the May 2022 presentation to council’s Health, Human Services, & the Arts committee. The Urban League of Greater Cleveland is the group’s fiscal agent and has also provided in-kind support.
Panel discussion takeaways
After the introduction to RAPHC-C, Commissioner of Health Frances Mills moderated two panels. The first segment, called a “Founders’ Panel,” featured organizations that had been leading efforts to address racial disparities in Cleveland before city council’s declaration and the formation of RAPHC-C. For example, First Year Cleveland and YWCA Greater Cleveland held an event called “400 Years of Inequity: A Call to Action” in November 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in the U.S. First Year Cleveland, with the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee, also released “Toxic: A Black Woman’s Story,” a short film about Black infant and maternal health the same year.
Mockabee and her fellow RAPHC-C co-chair, YWCA Greater Cleveland CEO Helen Forbes Fields, joined leaders of the NAACP Cleveland Branch, Birthing Beautiful Communities, First Year Cleveland, and the United Way of Greater Cleveland to answer questions such as why it can be difficult to talk about racism. Panelists said that many people have been taught racism is something that happened years ago, rather than something that’s still embedded in laws, government, and other systems.
During the audience Q&A, a community member said that residents know about the issues in the community and asked about ways to empower residents to create sustainable solutions. During the next segment, a “Policymakers’ Panel,” Council Members Stephanie Howse and Kerry McCormack and director of public health Dr. David Margolius talked about equipping residents with the information and tools they need to change systems. McCormack said he wants residents to tell their council members when something is wrong and what they should be focusing on.
Racism, not race, causes racial health disparities such as shorter life expectancies and higher infant and maternal mortality rates, Margolius said. The three city leaders gave examples of ways they would like to see racism addressed as a public health crisis. Howse wants all city of Cleveland employees to participate in training on trauma-informed care. Mentioning the way the tobacco industry has targeted Black communities, Margolius wants the city to ban flavored tobacco products and make it easier for people to quit smoking. McCormack would like to see funding allocated to help Black residents become homeowners and build generational wealth.
To explain the purpose of the city government’s Interdepartmental Equity Team, Lita Wills, commissioner of health equity and social justice, compared its work to trying to fix the foundation of a house. If city government is a house, the team has to jack up its foundation, adding in the equity that it was previously built without, Wills said.
The town hall closed with attendees discussing how racism impacts them, their work, and their neighborhoods, what they heard at the event that gave them hope, and what they would like to see addressed to improve racial equity in Cleveland. RAPHC-C leaders did not mention the coalition’s specific next steps or how to get involved at the event.
In February, RAPHC-C project manager Gabrielle Fowlkes told The Land in an email that the group’s community engagement team was in the process of developing its outreach strategies. RAPHC-C also planned to give another update on its work to city council in March or April, which has not happened yet. The teams focusing on the five topics based on the social determinants of health expect to complete their work by the end of the second quarter, she said in the email.