Structural racism and public health explored in forum hosted by Ann Arbor library

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The Ann Arbor District Library, in partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center, held a virtual forum Thursday evening addressing how systemic racism exacerbates the inequities that exist within public health.

The economic and social effects of the pandemic has drawn attention to what public health experts, cities and counties have been declaring about structural racism and public health — the existence of systemic racism is a public health crisis.

This summer, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to address the health disparities that arise more often in residents of color, a day after the Washtenaw County Board of Health did the same. The statements joined a growing number of Michigan communities that made similar declarations, including Ypsilanti and Jackson, as well as communities across the country, following the death of George Floyd.

Clinical social workers Syma Khan and David Fulkerson discussed the relationship between structural racism and mental health throughout the hour-long forum, before answering questions for members of the public, many of whom asked how they could inspire change within their workplace or institution.

Ann Arbor District Library, U-M Depression Center address structural racism and public health in virtual forum

The panelists spoke about a number of issues facing healthcare providers, such as building on the current push to dismantle systematic racism and increase access to mental health services, increasing the number of providers who actually look like the community they serve and increasing the health system’s awareness of how important a person’s cultural identity and experience is when it comes to utilizing care.

Khan and Fulkerson discussed several key performance indicators that gauge social and mental well-being throughout Washtenaw County.

Despite Washtenaw consistently ranking near the top of the state in regard to its health factors, there are also plenty of drawbacks that can shed light on the experiences of those facing challenges in the area. While the city of Ann Arbor is thought of as the most educated city in America, as well as top five in the country for green cities for families, it is also one of the most economically segregated cities, Fulkerson said.

“Washtenaw County is the most expensive rental market in Michigan, and we are at the bottom 8% for upward income mobility,” Fulkerson said. “There’s quite a mixed story here in terms of this very brief and superficial look at our community, but it can inform us of aspects we need to work on.”
Univeristy of Michigan Depression Center infographic

Fulkerson compared two different communities in Washtenaw County: Ypsilanti Township’s Sugarbrook community and Scio Township, west of Ann Arbor. The life expectancy of individuals living in Scio Township is 83 years, four years longer than the expectancy of an individual living in Sugarbrook and nearby neighborhoods. Unemployment in Sugarbrook is 17% compared to Scio Township where just 6.6% of individuals lack employment.

“I think we want to be careful how we talk about racism, poverty, and other social factors because technically, they, especially race, are markers of health outcomes but not the drivers of those outcomes,” Khan said. “Being Black by itself does not cause poorer health, it is the systematic discrimination that causes poor health outcomes.”

Khan argued that without the systematic racism that is present in most aspects of everyday life, we wouldn’t see large disparities between white and Black Americans.

“Same with poverty, being poor by itself doesn’t cause poor health, but not having sufficient resources to support good health is a driver of that outcome,” Khan said.

Fulkerson and Khan responded to submitted questions revolving around how individuals can promote and increase the awareness of systemic racism as it relates to public and mental health.

Serving as an advocate by asking questions like, “What is your school board, your city council doing to address structural racism,’” are some of the ways individuals can address systemic racism, Fulkerson said.

“As a social worker, understanding intersectionality was a really important part of my training,” Fulkerson said. “Everyone has so many different levels of experience and identity, understanding where you fit into all of that and also where those around you fit into that.”

Institutions as well as individuals within a community having an awareness that many of the disparities between communities across Washtenaw County begin during childhood, plays a vital role in alleviating the issues, Khan says.

“How can we invest money into early education and recognize that’s when these effects begin? We need to be more cognizant of those kind of effects and really thinking from a policy perspective,” Khan said.

People interested in watching the event can click the following link to be directed to the Ann Arbor District Library website.

Click the following link for the U-M Depression Center's Community Forum Series, Bright Nights.