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Racism declared a public health crisis; how communities are pushing for permanent change

Racism public health crisis
Posted at 4:20 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 16:20:01-04

PORTLAND, Oregon — Racism is being declared a public health crisis all over the country, leaving many to question what changes will come from it. Some say it will hold the government accountable.

Each note and every word that artist and activist Marilyn Keller sings is part of her journey to achieve a more equal and equitable tomorrow.

“This day, I find myself as a social justice seeker and artist-activist, from years, decades, being called upon to provide vocals, to provide lyrical content to the struggle for human rights," Keller said. “I will not sit idly by. I will not sit silently while this world continues to spiral outward into chaos.”

Keller calls herself a vocal instrument and her talents have been greatly sought after throughout the last year.

"I was asked to sing at a rally for Treyvon Martin. I was asked to sing at a rally for Michael Brown," Keller said. “My repertoire, everything that I have gained over the years, all of the songs that have been written for me to sing. All the songs that I’ve pulled into my own set of knowledge has been specifically targeted towards justice.”

After more than 30 years as a social justice advocate, Keller feels like change might be finally coming.

“This is one step on a road," Keller said.

Almost a year after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Multnomah County, which encompasses Portland, declared racism a public health crisis. Deborah Kafoury, the chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, says they can’t go back to the way things were.

"Racism is at the heart of so many of these inequities in our community and it’s really up to us to name it, to call it out and then to do something to change it," Kafoury said. “We’re a progressive community and there is always a lot of talk about being a progressive community, but the action has not been there in the past.”

They are one of 82 counties, alongside 115 cities and 10 states, to make this declaration. She says as COVID-19 swept through the country, people of color were disproportionately affected in cases and in deaths. This declaration acknowledges that and invites accountability within government.

“It’s not just individual acts; it’s systemic racism that’s causing these disparities," Kafoury said

Both the pandemic and recent killings of Black people at the hands of police have brought renewed attention to these inequities. As the Director of the Department of Community Justice, Erika Preuitt sees this declaration as an opportunity to change, to talk.

“Things that always had been happening in our communities were really brought to light with the murder of George Floyd and then COVID-19," Preuitt said. “I already see that happening. I already see us coming together more.”

For leaders like Preuitt and Kafoury, addressing systemic racism means turning the words of this declaration into action.

“It can’t be a top-down, government knows best; it has to be actually that community knows best," Kafoury said. “We’re more than hopeful we’re going to be intentional about ensuring that practices that we put in place actually move the dial.”

“The journey of 1,000 miles begins with just one step," Keller said

With changes on the horizon from this declaration, Keller thinks back to the Portland she grew up in and feels this is a way to look forward.

“I was part of the last busing of African American students out of this area," Keller said.