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Summit County Considers Resolution Declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis

a photo of Akron protest
Protesters demonstrate in downtown Akron on May 30, 2020.

Summit County Council is considering a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. County Council member Veronica Sims introduced the resolution at the council meeting Monday night (see the full resolution below).

County Executive Ilene Shapiro supports the effort and says her office will back any initiative that seeks to make a positive difference.

The public health environment we tend to think of that as illness, you know, COVID, that kind of thing, when there are structural, and when I say structural, things that have been put into our society that keeps people locked into poverty, keeps people locked into not being able to access better health care, better food choices, etc. So it is fitting and appropriate, that we call it what it is and it is a public health crisis. 

So I admire all of those and commend them for bringing it forward. And hopefully we will be able to keep this dialogue moving forward. So it isn't something that just goes in a drawer somewhere.

Was this something that came up in Summit County directly because of what happened to George Floyd in Minnesota?

These conversations have happened actually, I think from my first knowledge was actually in Columbus when something formal as the resolution came out.

The conversations around Elevate Greater Akron, where we have a lot of subcommittees working on diversity and inclusion, and that's been going on 2 to 3 years now, where they're looking maybe not as comprehensively, but looking at specific areas where we know that our black and minority communities are disadvantaged.

Ilene Shapiro
Ilene Shapiro has been Summit County Executive since August 2016.

I won't say it was in a formal, as much as the work that Elevate Greater Akron did told us, told us clearly about the disparities in the black community and the work has been going on around that, and I think that this resolution will also be a springboard for those conversations.

What do you think it would say, though, as a message to approve a resolution like this?

I think it sends a message that this community is a caring community. And there are things that perhaps weren't paid attention to that should be paid attention to, and that this is something that we know from the research, not only from what's happened now, but from the research through Elevate Greater Akron, there are barriers, there are clearly barriers to people’s success and that actually putting a name on it and being able to talk about it in those terms, that people can see it in a more holistic approach, rather than it's about public safety, or it's about housing. It is about a public health crisis. And that puts it in a whole different dimension.

And you can see from the demonstrations, there are people out of every race, age, every demographic that you can think of, in these peaceful demonstrations, looking for that change, because it's past due.

I know you wrote your executive cabinet a letter (see the letter below) saying that you want to be a model in confronting racism and discrimination and pushing forward difficult conversations. So how will that happen? How do you see that occurring?

Some things that we've been thinking about, although I don't want to commit to any particular one of them, so one of the things is that many private corporations have done is they have put in their organizations teams together to have these conversations to help, whatever that entity is--and in this case it would be the county-- understand what barriers, what opportunities there might be, to be able to help some of our folks and understanding the cultural differences and as I said, some of the hurdles that perhaps some of the folks are having and better ways that we might be able to help them.

Now, the county did put, myself shortly after I took office, the diversity and inclusion board together. And they were charged to look at four areas, and one was our hiring practices; one was community engagement; another one was boards and commissions, because I appoint roughly 50 boards a year and there are places where people have opportunity to make a difference on a different level than perhaps what they do every day. And then the other one really was around economics. That wasn't the word that we used, but how do we help businesses get stronger? What programs could we put in place? The counties and the cities buy a lot of materials. How do we make sure that we can work with our minority contractors in a more efficient and quite honestly a broader way?

One of our reporters talked with a protest organizer who made a comment that, you know, there's a lot of talk, but the everyday person doesn't see a lot of action. How do you communicate with them these initiatives that are going on that are trying to make change?

Well, I think that there is a challenge there. Because many people quite honestly are, they're trying to make a living, they're trying to put food on their table, keep a roof over their head, get their kids educated, take care of their parents if they're sick. And so sometimes, programs like what Elevate Greater Akron is doing or what we're doing, sometimes those programs do not resonate down until you have a need or somebody tells you about it. So I think that finding different ways to communicate those is really important.

County Council will discuss the public health resolution regarding racism June 8. A vote is expected at the council meeting June 15.



A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.