Cleveland coalition tasked with addressing racism takes first steps

Two years ago, Cleveland City Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. Now, the coalition tasked with addressing the crisis is taking its first public steps.
Helen Forbes Fields (left) and Marsha Mockabee (right) are the co-chairs of RAPHC-C. Mockabee is CEO and president of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, and Forbes Fields is CEO of YWCA Greater Cleveland. (Photo by Karin McKenna)

The coalition tasked in the wake of George Floyd’s murder with alleviating the damaging effects of racism in Cleveland has hired a project manager and released a timeline of its work. 

The Racism as a Public Health Crisis Coalition (RAPHC-C) was created to improve the lives of Black people and those of other marginalized groups in Cleveland by addressing the root causes of racial inequities within systems, said Marsha Mockabee, co-chair of RAPHC-C and the CEO and president of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, which is the group’s fiscal sponsor. 

RAPHC-C was created two years ago when Cleveland City Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.

In July, the Urban League hired former high school principal and community organizer Lea Dotson to manage the coalition’s day-to-day work, track its progress and help create a community report, said Gabrielle Fowlkes of the Urban League.

The issue is high stakes in Cleveland, which is one of the worst cities in the country for Black women and which has some of the highest levels of racial segregation in the nation, according to the University of California, Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute

Former state Rep. and current Ward 7 Councilperson Stephanie Howse said she sees how the criminal justice, healthcare and education systems are not working for many people.

“Beyond myself, literally I have hundreds of stories of lived experiences for people not only in Ward 7, but [from] my time in the statehouse,” said Howse, who has been asked to join the RAPHC-C executive committee. “And those things, I think, add value when you’re talking about the practicality of any changes, having a little bit of understanding of how they could impact and positively change the trajectory of many of the people living here in the city of Cleveland”

The coalition also asked council members Kevin Conwell, Ward 9, and Charles Slife, Ward 17, to join its executive committee, Mockabee said. Last month, YWCA Greater Cleveland CEO Helen Forbes Fields, who has previously served on the executive committee, became a RAPHC-C co-chair.

But the creation of the working group alone will not guarantee progress, according to a report commissioned by RAPHC-C.

Resolutions declaring racism as a public health crisis can lead to meaningful anti-racist policies and bridge longstanding divisions, but they can also poison or sedate grassroots momentum by providing cover for politicians without meaningfully addressing structural issues, the report says.

“In reality, what we found was that no one’s really got it right yet,” said Brandon Wafford, a consultant at ThirdSpace Action Lab, which authored the report. “This is an opportunity for Cleveland to really experiment with some of these lofty ideas.”

The coalition presented its seven-month plan to city council in May. The plan outlines areas of focus, listed below, around the social determinants of health, or the conditions under which people live, learn, and work that affect their health and well-being.

  1. Health, public health
  2. Housing, environment, and infrastructure
  3. Education
  4. Economic mobility, wealth creation, and workforce development
  5. Criminal justice  

Implementation of the plan was pushed back while the group hired its project manager, Fowlkes said. 

The coalition, which has received $200,000 from the city, has drawn criticism for meeting behind closed doors during its first two years. The group also received a $125,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase, said Mockabee.

During that time, the coalition created a structure and established goals to be able to “put some teeth behind the resolution,” Forbes Fields said. The group will use performance reporting software to track the impact of future initiatives. This effort will include scorecards, slated to be available to the public next year, tracking progress on yet-to-be-determined benchmarks related to the social determinants of health, according to Mockabee.

“This work is tough,” Mockabee said. “We’re talking about years and years of disinvestment. We’re talking about years and years of racial inequity, and this is not something that’s going to be solved overnight.”

The group plans to host listening tours to gather community input and will release a report to the public and hold a community town hall by the end of the year, Mockabee said.

The long-term goal of the coalition is to go beyond piecemeal efforts and create system-level change, said Lita-Marie Wills, the commissioner of health equity and social justice at the Cleveland Department of Public Health and a member of RAPHC-C’s executive committee. The city health department’s work aligns with the coalition’s in focusing on social determinants of health, she said. 

The work of retooling systems in a city that is over 100 years old is complex, Wills added. 

“It’s sort of like, you take a house that’s already built, and you realize you didn’t lay the foundation properly,” she said. “So we have to jack up the house and lay that foundation — and that foundation is equity so what we’re trying to do is infuse equity in all things.”

As RAPHC-C lays out its work for the coming months, Cleveland’s public health staff has come under new leadership. On June 8, Mayor Bibb appointed Dr. David Margolius, who previously worked at MetroHealth, as director of public health. Addressing racism as a public health crisis will take a community-wide effort, said Margolius, who started as director on August 1.

“Above all, we want to make sure that this work is all of our work collectively,” he said. “We certainly want the coalition and those members to take the lead in describing the action that we all need to take, but nobody should be sitting on the sideline eating popcorn with this. We want all hands on deck, and looking forward to continuing to make Cleveland a better place to live and breathe for all, particularly people who have been the most oppressed.” 

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.

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