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Public Health Crisis: A Critical Conversation About Race with the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh

Last week, the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh began their Action Conversations About Race series with a discussion on “Racism as a Public Health Crisis.” This insightful webinar featured local health experts, including wellness practitioner​ Lovie J.J. Foster, PhD, MSW; epidemiologist​ Chantele Mitchell-Miland, PhD, MPH; and Cathy Sigmund, PhD, CWM, Director of Behavioral Health and Community Wellness at the Northside Christian Health Center.

During the discussion, panelists highlighted the varying health issues African Americans face as a result of racism in the United States, and the critical need for African Americans to seek mental and physical wellness to address the trauma associated with living in a racist society. Moreover, panelists emphasized that the issue of racism in America is perpetuated by individuals’ inability to view one another as human beings, first.

Dr. Foster explained, “Before we see color, before we acknowledge the social construct of race that separates us, we should notice, and accept, and honor the human race, and that we are one people.”

Yet, communities of color cannot escape the historically racist systems, practices and ideals that have worked to keep them oppressed, marginalized and, ultimately, sick.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that growing bodies of research outline the profound, negative impacts of centuries of racism on communities of color. The social determinants of health—where one lives, learns, works, worships and plays—have proven to have significant, negative health outcomes for communities of color. These health inequities place people of color at higher risk for health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma and heart disease, when compared to their white counterparts.

Dr. Foster explained, “Racism fires alarms that flood us with a fear response and dangerous stress hormones that impact our whole existence. They affect our brain and thus, they affect our bodies. And ultimately, they mix our joy, our peace, our sense of comfort, our sense of home and our sense of humanity with an unhealthy, heightened sense of disease. So, we are constantly impacted by race and racism each and every day; to wake up thinking about the color of your skin, to go to bed thinking about it. I would say, how a person or population feels is an indicator of their mental health and well-being, and if the African proverb rings true that unless the children are well we are not well, then racism is absolutely wearing down our physical and mental capacity for wellness and keeping us sick.”

Panelists emphasized the importance of addressing this issue at local, state and federal levels. Taking the appropriate steps to dismantle racism within each racist system will first require recognition, as well as action on a policy level.

Dr. Sigmund suggested, “We need more information from the cultural, ethnic leaders to get a sense of where to go with these health initiatives and [addressing] the racial problems that we all experience in this country.”

In 2019, in recognition of the varying mental and physical health disparities facing African Americans in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh City Council declared racism as a public health crisis that impacted the entire city. This came following the report, Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race, which outlined a number of disparaging outcomes African Americans have faced in Pittsburgh compared to their white counterparts. The city has since worked toward creating an All-In Cities Leadership Forum to forge policy solutions, and authorizing the All-In Cities Investment Fund, which would work with the downtown-based POISE Foundation on “development projects and entrepreneurial activities” to improve equity, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

This example illuminates how communities can begin to prioritize the health and wellness of African Americans by recognizing systemic racism and the cyclical impacts it has on communities of color. Further, by recognizing racism as a public health crisis, we can begin the healing process that people of color need to be holistically well.

To follow more of the Action Conversations About Race from the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh and to learn more ways to get involved, visit their website.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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