ORANGE — Residents will get the chance to weigh in Oct. 7 on whether the town should declare racism as a public health crisis, as has been done in many communities in Connecticut and nationwide.
The declaration acknowledges the impact of racism on health conditions and outcomes for people of color, as well as enabling government to tackle inequitable policies that reinforce institutional racism.
It’s been done in Connecticut municipalities including Simsbury, Bloomfield, Bridgeport, Colchester, Easton, Glastonbury, Hamden, Hartford, Manchester, Middletown, New Britain, New Haven, New London, South Windsor, West Hartford, Windham and Windsor.
The Orange forum will be held at High Plains Community Center from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. and capacity under pandemic protocols will be 25 people.
The forum, with no guaranteed vote either way, came about when Democratic Town Chairwoman Jody Dietch raised the issue in the public speaking portion of a Sept. 9 Board of Selectmen meeting.
Dietch complained that the issue wasn’t on the agenda as she had requested. Dietch told selectmen she wasn’t there to argue the topic, but rather get it on the October meeting agenda for discussion.
Dietch said she didn’t know what happened with the agenda item, saying, “I don’t know if someone’s afraid of the topic.”
Selectwoman Margaret Novicki, a Democrat, said there has been a good number of residents with an interest in the topic. Novicki said she would like to have a discussion and possible resolution at the next meeting and said concerned citizens should have the chance to be heard.
First Selectman Jim Zeoli said racism is a worldwide issue and “far from the scope” of duties of the Orange Board of Selectmen.
Zeoli read two emails on the topic from residents — and noted a third, saying if the topic had been of big interest there likely would have been more than two emails from residents.
One email urged the board to declare racism a public health crisis to create awareness of disparities in health care and chronic illnesses that are the fault of the system, not the person.
Zeoli read into the record his return emails, including: “I find it unfortunate that you focus only on Black people having difficulties with health, safety and welfare. I think it’s a shame that so many other race, creeds and colors have been pushed to the side.”
To that, Selectman Mitch Goldblatt said a sample ordinance he had said “Black, Native American, Asian and Latino.”
They decided to hold a forum, separate from the Board of Selectmen, and decide at another meeting whether to address the issue after gauging public interest.
According to a release from Health Equity Solutions, more Connecticut municipalities and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation recently joined the movement to declare racism a public health crisis, noting at least 17 Connecticut municipalities have done it so far.
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation became the first tribal nation to make this declaration, the press release said.
“In addition to acknowledging racism as a public health crisis, this important initiative also outlines concrete methods to actively address it,” Matthew Pearson, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council secretary, said in the release. “Our Tribe’s success in gaming and business has not miraculously eliminated centuries of intergenerational trauma inflicted by a system that now seeks to use tribal gaming as an excuse to ignore the ongoing needs of Indigenous people.”
In addition to the Orange forum, the New Haven Racism as a Public Health Emergency working group will hold host a public hearing at 6 p.m. Oct. 15 on Zoom.
Easton First Selectman Dr. David Bindelglass said, in the release, “I feel strongly that we are part of a larger community and America in general and that’s why this [declaration] matters. Systemic racism has massive effects on public health — as First Selectman and a practicing physician for 30 years in Bridgeport, I have seen this. It’s important for Easton to take this step even though our population is such that relevance may seem limited. I think it’s important for every person and every town take a stand on this issue.”
Tekisha Dwan Everette, executive director of Health Equity Solutions, said in the release: “Acknowledging a problem is the first step in addressing it. Publicly acknowledging that racism — through structural disadvantages and the ‘weathering’ of daily experiences — is a public health crisis that results in far too much preventable suffering and death, is a starting point for action.”
“Recognizing and making the statement that declares racism as a public health crisis is the right thing to do and a step toward a more equitable community and society,” Hamden Mayor Curt B. Leng said in the release. “In the time of COVID-19, when impact on people of color is statistically higher, we have a real-time health emergency where we can put our value statement to the test and work to help people.”
Robyn Anderson, who leads the Middletown-based Ministerial Health Fellowship and participates in the town’s People of Color Health Initiative, said in the release: “It is my hope and prayer that we will declare racism as a public health issue as we work together to achieve health equity and justice for all.”