LifestyleBlack History Month


360: Addressing racism as a public health crisis

Posted at 5:42 AM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 08:56:50-05

MILWAUKEE — From education to healthcare and economics to housing, we've seen how departments across the state are coming together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ability to tackle one single issue is a lesson in how to fight another public health crisis; racism. To understand why and how we're going 360.

TMJ4's Ryan Jenkins talked to Milwaukee's mayor about the ongoing fight for equitable housing and to a senior vice president of Advocate Aurora Health who addresses how the health system plays a role. He also spoke with the chairwoman of Black Educators Caucus MKE who shares how education is impacted by racism.

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First, we start with Milwaukee County's Director of Health and Human Services, nearly two years after Milwaukee County became one of the first in the nation to declare racism as a public health crisis.

"When we passed this resolution back in May 2019, we really were looking at how do we advance racial equity? How do we improve the health outcomes of people that we serve and make that a top priority of MKE County Government," said Shakita LaGrant, Milwaukee County's Director of Health and Human Services.

LaGrant says the county is making progress in the push towards equity by focusing on multiple areas including workforce, equitable resources and programs, data surrounding disparities, and new revenue to be used to form new preventative resources while still addressing current issues.

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"We have to look at the way people are living. We have to break down those barriers so people don't have to beg for simple things that we should all have. That is a great education, that is affordable housing that is of quality, that is transportation, that is access to healthcare," said LaGrant.

Each of those areas plays a major role in attacking racism.


LaGrant said the county helped to prevent more than 4,000 evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and she says 83% of the families helped were Black families.

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Milwaukee's Mayor Tom Barrett says equitable housing is a priority in the city right now.

The City of Milwaukee followed the county in 2019 in declaring racism a public health crisis. Months before COVID-19 highlighted disparities in our community and before several police shootings of Black Americans sparked renewed calls for racial equity nationwide.

"Without a doubt, if you look at all of the demonstrations and all of the arguments that we heard last summer in the black lives movement and the social justice and racial justice movement, housing has been a big part of that. It's a big part of that and this is an area where the city has really been in the forefront of trying to create more quality housing," said Barrett.

The Mayor says the city is funneling $6 Million from tax incremental districts towards housing in the community. He is also working with departments and with state and federal partners to develop more opportunities to help low-income families buy a home and build wealth. For example, the city is working to grow down-payment assistance programs.

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"We all recognize that having a safe place to live, hang a roof above ahead and heat is really important," said Barrett.

Health Care

Access to health care is also important.

Erickajoy Daniels is the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for Advocate Aurora Health, A healthcare system that serves Southeast Wisconsin and declared racism a public health crisis in 2020.

"We saw in so many ways last year that our communities were not living well, and what was our role and responsibility to help to make sure that we were part of a solution and not contributing to the pain or problem," said Daniels.

She points to investments in communities by partnering with minority-owned businesses and focusing on areas where disparities are common in the African-American community, like Hypertension.

"Education, information, cooking demonstrations, understanding food access, and making sure that we all have a chance to live life well," said Daniels.


From housing and health care - to education.

"We have an anti-racism, anti-bias resolution. Our district six years ago supported the black lives matter movement," said Angela Harris, chairwoman of Black Educators Caucus MKE and is a teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools.

She says it is encouraging to see more districts, like MPS, addressing racism head-on. But, she says there is still a lot of work to do.

"COVID-19 and the pandemic of racism are coming to a reckoning at the same time," said Harris.

She worries about the learning loss students may experience after nearly a year of virtual schooling. She says resources, like reading and math specialists, will be key to moving forward.

Harris adds that having black teachers in classrooms has an undeniable impact on student success. And, there's another shift that is moving things in the right direction: African-American characters in books, movies, and lesson plans.

"It's so important," said Harris. "A black child should be able to open their book and see themselves as a zookeeper, or a vet, or a scientist, or a mathematician."

The sources say celebrating our past and culture is important year-round, but so is writing a new history this Black History Month and beyond.

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