Beyond Declarations: Moving Forward to Advance Racial Equity

In honor of National Public Health Week 2023

Written by Gina Rodriguez

Across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, racism has been declared a public health crisis – from Boston to Beverly to Chicopee, there have been 19 declarations across the state that have specifically named racism outright as a threat to our health. Some cities and towns have issued resolutions, some have decided to put together task forces, and other cities and towns are working together to create solutions for racial inequities. Speaking as a woman of color who grew up in the city of Boston, the need for these declarations came as no surprise to those of us who experienced firsthand how racist our systems, schools and people could be.

I can recall growing up in the city, watching the race wars at play between the housing projects and wondering how adults expected us all to go to the same school peacefully when kids were shooting across the street at one another in the same neighborhoods. How we were all living in the same dilapidated buildings, most of us just trying to make it to our 18th birthdays, yet irrevocably pitted against one another based on the street we lived on. The systems that were supposedly designed to keep us happy, healthy, and safe have been broken for a very long time.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one, and then deciding what is to be done about it. If we take a deeper dive into those 19 declarations across the state, we can see that there have been different approaches to tackling racism as a public health crisis. In Framingham, the Mayor and the Department of Health are working in partnership on an 8-step plan that includes the development of “an equity plan that outlines detailed objectives and measurable goals in which the City will focus on root causes of the inequities that cause disparities in health outcomes for our residents,” signed on June 20, 2020. Cities like Boston and Everett have decided to sign onto The ‘Mayor’s Pledge’, issued by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. The Mayor’s Pledge calls on local officials to commit to the following actions:

  1. REVIEW: Cities will review their police use-of-force policies and/or ways to redefine public safety and combat systemic racism within law enforcement.
  2. ENGAGE: Cities will engage with their communities and include diverse input, experiences, and stories in the process.
  3. REPORT: After the review, cities will share the findings with their community and seek feedback.
  4. REFORM: Cities will change their use-of-force policies and strategize ways to redefine public safety and combat systemic racism within law enforcement.

All 19 declarations include similar language of community engagement, centered around finding ways to address equity in each of these cities and towns across the state. Given the conversations we have been having as a nation, as we try to heal from the hurt and injustices that have plagued our country throughout its history, we need to continue to make space for collaboration in our efforts to move forward.

What I believe is missing from these plans and conversations is our ability to think outside of our city lines. Unlike us, racism does not recognize where one town ends and another begins. It doesn’t see the lines that separate Lowell and Lawrence – it is embedded in the very roots of the systems we have created: our ground water is poisoned, one could say. Given that racism permeates all our systems, it is important for us to collectively listen and learn from one another. We must reach across city and county lines and ask one another: what is working? How can we learn from our mistakes AND successes? What are ways we can create space for cross-collaboration that brings more ideas to the table?

When we can see and hear from diverse pools of communities that have sat and planned together, we can work alongside one another to figure out how to leverage our power across city and sector lines. We must choose to be creative, to learn, to make mistakes, to try again and uplift one another until we start seeing the change we want to create. Many coalitions and organizations across Massachusetts are initiating multi-sector solutions, and hospitals and foundations are funding more collective action approaches to Racial Justice. We have named the problem; we’ve even started the work to address it – now we need to continue to break down the walls that have kept us separated and siloed and embark on this journey together.