How Is Cleveland City Council Addressing Racism As A Public Health Crisis?

At a June 2020 news conference, Cleveland City Council members hailed the passage of legislation declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolution created a working group of nonprofit leaders that will advise council on eliminating racial disparities, but questions remain about how much influence the group can have. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
At a June 2020 news conference, Cleveland City Council members hailed the passage of legislation declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolution created a working group of nonprofit leaders that will advise council on eliminating racial disparities, but questions remain about how much influence the group can have. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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Ideastream Public Media’s health team is connecting the dots on how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area. As government and health agencies have declared racism is a public health crisis, representatives from Cleveland City Council and community organizations tell us what they have been doing to target structural barriers at the root of health inequities.

It’s been more than a year since Cleveland City Council voted to declare racism a public health crisis and created a task force of nonprofits to advise them on policy decisions to address these racial disparities.

But questions remain about how much the group can actually influence change, especially with a new city administration coming soon. The election day for the mayor of Cleveland is Nov. 2. 

Although the resolution was actually introduced many months earlier in 2020, it unanimously passed the 17-member council in June – in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where Black Americans are disproportionally getting sick and dying from the virus.

“Racism exists in all of the systems we have across this city,” Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin said at a press conference outside City Hall on June 5, 2020. “It has caused health disparities. It has caused economic disparities. It has caused disparities in the amount of affordable equality housing that we have in the city of Cleveland. And yes, it is also a civil rights issue, and it is a public health crisis.” 

The resolution created a “working group” made up of leaders from several community organizations in the city, including the YWCA, the NAACP, infant mortality activist groups Birthing Beautiful Communities and First Year Cleveland and the Urban League of Greater Cleveland.

The group will make recommendations and advise policymakers and city officials on improving racial disparities in the city, Griffin said.

Many of Cleveland’s Black residents experience poor health outcomes like low life expectancy, infant mortality and toxic stress, he said. Much of that is due to historical policies like redlining, which kept Black residents from buying homes in communities with better housing and investment, he said.

The task force will focus on the systems in place that prolong these housing and health issues, as well as the economy, criminal justice, and education, he added.

 All of those things have implications of racism that create disparities between the access and the service that many communities of color and poor communities receive from those entities,” Griffin said. “The working group … can be entrenched no matter who's the mayor, who's the council president, who's the leaders of the city. We really want to have something that kind of is transformational.”

The group has met regularly over the past six months to figure out its internal structure and how it will operate, Griffin said. They eventually plan to start pinpointing legislation or projects that they could advocate council to pass or greenlight, he added.

Danielle Sydnor, president of the Cleveland branch of the NAACP and a member of the group, says one example could be for the group to propose and support projects to target the city’s aging infrastructure.

Substandard housing is a significant factor in health disparities like lead poisoning, asthma and chemical exposures, she said, and disproportionally affects majority Black neighborhoods where homes are often older and not renovated.

“If we can set an aggressive goal that we have remediated and abated lead from all of the properties in the city, you now open up a whole new network of potential housing opportunities,” Sydnor said. “At the same time, you have the opportunity to employ people or help people start businesses and lead remediation that they can also use as a launching pad to now be doing this type of work on other projects and other homes and other places.”

These projects can’t happen without support from city officials, Sydnor added, and more importantly, money.

Therein lies a potential problem: the working group does not have its own funds to make these projects happen.

Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones, who also co-sponsored the resolution, said this limits what the group can truly accomplish.

“The group has to ask the question, you know, ‘can we get resources’ or even ask the question, ‘will they be able to receive resources?’ No one has the answer to that,” he said. “It is just a document that just feels good, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't put resources behind it.”

Because it does not have its own funds, the working group will have to exert financial influence in other ways, Jones said. For example, the group can advise officials on the municipal budget and how to spend federal funds, he said.

The city of Cleveland is set to get more than $500 million from the American Rescue Plan, a law signed by President Joe Biden that gives cities and counties funds to help recover from the pandemic.

Jones and Sydnor hope the working group can advise the council to spend the American Rescue Plan money on projects where racial equity is the focus, such as reducing the number of Black children who die in their first year of life and improving access to broadband.

 “What we're trying to say is, we’ve got to start to really get at making sure that ... our dollars that come into city and county governments really start to help level the playing field for everybody,” Sydnor said.

Regardless of the project, the key will be making sure city officials and the newly-elected mayor are on the same page as the working group and continue to support it, she said.

This was a challenge in the beginning, said Margaret Mitchell, president of the Greater Cleveland YWCA and co-chair of the group.

“Initially, people rolled their eyes. I think it was a lack of awareness around what is public health and how in the world could public health be linked to racism?” Mitchell said. “The common narrative is, whether people want to admit it or not today … is, ‘well, you know, it’s really probably something wrong with the people. Brown people and the Black people do this, they do that,’ so it was always this subtle 'blame the victim' narrative that has been effective and extremely popular.”

Although some city officials and community members were hesitant at first, there’s more buy-in now that the pandemic revealed racial health inequities, Mitchell said.

According to the United Way of Greater Cleveland's 2020 Community Health Assessment, although the population of Cuyahoga County is 63 percent white and 29 percent Black, Black residents made up 49 percent of COVID cases and 61 percent of COVID hospitalizations.

“It's so subtle, so ingrained that we almost don't even recognize the advantages and disadvantages today,” Mitchell added. “Some of the policies and laws don't scream at us the way they did four hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, or even one hundred years or 50 years. But it is extremely pervasive, the advantaging and the disadvantaging based on the color of skin.”

The city is also hiring a new position, called the commissioner of equity, who will work alongside the group on these racial equity projects, Mitchell said. The role is not dependent on the current administration, which will help ensure that the city continues to support the group, regardless of who is in office, she said.

In the meantime, the working group continues to meet, and is currently figuring out how to measure its impact going forward, Councilman Griffin said.

They are also starting to invite representatives from other groups in the city, such as health care institutions, to get input from experts on the projects and legislation the group hopes to advise council on, he said.

Sydnor from the NAACP understands some people are frustrated to not see tangible change happen right away. But racial equity is a complicated issue, she said, and therefore, change takes time.

 “There are many people who are saying, well, this is great, you've declared it, but it was just a symbolism and it's just a thing on a piece of paper and we don't see anything happening,” Sydnor said. “But I would say, I'm also someone who wants to see us doing a lot more, but I also recognize that we've got to get it right.”

Council members and other city officials have drafted an early plan for how they will spend the American Rescue Plan funds and submitted it to the U.S. Treasury Department for approval. More details about the plan, including specific dollar amounts for initiatives, are forthcoming.

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