Washtenaw County has declared racism a public health crisis. What are the county's next steps?

Washtenaw County Commissioner Felicia Brabec says the county's recent resolution declaring racism a public health crisis is not mere lip service.


"Words alone will not work. We must move on the action items. We simply must," says Brabec, who co-authored the document and also sits on the Washtenaw County Board of Health.


The county board of commissioners passed the resolution on July 1, outlining at least eight ways the county can address health disparities among people of color. The resolution followed closely after a June 30 statement from the Washtenaw County Board of Health, and it's in line with similar statements made recently by other communities across the U.S. (including the city of Ypsilanti).


Some of the action items outlined in the resolution are: continued collaboration with the Washtenaw County Sheriff's office, increasing budget for the county's health department and racial equity office, and enacting universal paid leave for employees, including but not limited to paid parental leave.


"When I think about next steps, I think about what I have purview over. As commissioners, the biggest thing we have purview over is the budget," Brabec says. "There are big budget issues coming up because of COVID. How are we looking at our budget through a racial equity frame? And what implications will that have?"


Brabec adds that efforts will unfold simultaneously at the county's administrative and departmental levels.


"There is now a critical mass of us who actively and publicly want to address racism and the impact in terms of our governmental unit," she says. "So many people are looking at the issue at different levels, trying to impact change in different ways and through different avenues."


As an example, Brabec says she's working intently with Alize Asberry Payne, the county's racial equity officer, to get more community members from the 48197 and 48198 zip codes involved in the county's COVID-19 racial equity task force.


Brabec says undoing the effects of "a centuries-long history of indoctrination in terms of racism" is not an overnight venture. She is confident, however, that the new declaration will keep the county moving in the right direction.


"Two years ago we made a very specific statement and announced our first racial equity policy. To get to that point we had to have been doing work well before that time," she says.


In another two years, Brabec would like to see all the action points in the recent declaration in progress, or perhaps even completed.


"Things that have been so deeply entrenched will take time to undo. It's going to take constant, intentional work," she says.


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


Photo courtesy of Washtenaw County.

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