Hennepin County declares racism a public health crisis (updated)

Courtesy of Hennepin County Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley took to Facebook on Juneteenth to announce that she and Commissioner Irene Fernando planned to introduce a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. It was approved by a final vote on June 30.

The resolution cites health scholars and states that Hennepin County—home to some of the starkest racial disparities in the nation— will advocate for relevant policies “that improve health in Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color.” Similar resolutions have already been introduced in 11 other counties across the nation, including Milwaukee (WI), Kalamazoo (MI), Dallas (TX), and several others.

In 2018, Conley and Fernando shook up the Hennepin County Board’s status quo. Conley, who defeated longtime incumbent Peter McLaughlin to represent District 4 in South Minneapolis, became the first African American elected to serve on the board. Fernando, of Filipino descent, also made history as one of the county’s first commissioners of color. She represents District 2.

The MSR spoke with Commissioner Conley prior to the introduction of the resolution on Tuesday. An excerpt of that conversation appears below.

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR): How did this resolution come about and why now?

Commissioner Conley: There have been quite a number of counties across the country—we’re up to about a dozen now—who have been declaring racism a public health crisis in their respective counties. In fact, the first county, I believe Milwaukee County, actually declared last year.

Hennepin County is the 32nd largest county in the country. And we have a 1.2 million-person population. Yet we have been seeing very little results in terms of the acknowledgment that systemic racism is something that is embedded within all of Hennepin County’s core functions.

And you aren’t able to work on a problem or work towards a solution if you can’t even name what the problem is. So, in the last year…there’s a number of things that the County has initiated in terms of disparity reduction.

But not one time have we said that systemic racism is a problem in our county and we need to shift our focus from just disparity reduction to anti-racism and eliminating racist work. So just coming up with this resolution became more urgent, of course, after the murder of George Floyd. But really just putting up this long-overdue mirror to our own county and saying, “Look at yourself. You’re a part of the racism and discrimination and the bias that Black people have to live with every single day.”

MSR: So, how would the resolution help alleviate systemic racism? Or is it more of a symbolic measure?

Commissioner Conley: No, it’s only symbolic in that Hennepin County has never done it before. I wouldn’t want to sign on to anything that was lip service or anything that is attacking racism with no actual steps to improve anything.

What the resolution is doing is it’s telling our administrator that within a few weeks, we want an implementation plan of about 20 different things that involve eliminating racism internally, externally, and even within partners that we contract with.

So, at the root of it, it’s reshaping our work, one. Two, holding our own self accountable, which we have not done. And three, acknowledging going forward that every facet of the work that we do at Hennepin County will be screened through an anti-racist lens with the ultimate goal of eliminating racial disparities in our work. This is something that we just have not ever been able to do since Hennepin County became a county 168 years ago.

The symbolism comes in that now it’s time to recognize [racism]. You’ve got all these different social determinants of health. You’ve got all of these statistics that show our mortality rates are higher. Blood pressures are higher. Our food insecurity is higher. Our income is lower. So many scholars are out there saying that constant discrimination and racism is at the root of some of these determinants of health.  

Hennepin County is home to one of the worst places for Black people to live in the nation. And we have to be honest with ourselves and say well, the reasons are based out of systemic racism that just runs through our government.

MSR: Ok, so what’s next for the resolution?

Commissioner Conley: So after it’s introduced at the board meeting. we meet as the board and it will come through our committee. Irene and I are introducing this resolution and we will speak to it. There will be discussion and it will take a four-vote majority for it to pass and go into effect.

MSR: How does the Race Equity Advisory Council that you established last year come into play regarding the resolution?

Commissioner Conley: On Tuesday, we’ll appoint our representative for the Race Equity Council from each of our districts. The council was developed to be a community voice into the disparity reduction work happening at the County. One of the first questions I asked as commissioner when it came to disparity reduction was where’s the voice of the community? And there was none; there were no community feedback sessions, no community listening sessions, nothing.

So the Race Equity Advisory Council is that community voice to help us solve race inequity. They absolutely have to be a part of any work to dismantle racism within Hennepin County.

MSR: You’re two years into your time in office now and prior to this, you had never run for office. What has surprised you since your historic election in 2018?

Commissioner Conley: I would say the access, you know. It’s a privilege to come from a place where I’ve always been an activist. I’ve always been an advocate; I’m a social worker. So, I know what it’s like to hold my elected officials accountable and protest in front of their offices when needed.

It’s remarkable the amount of access that I have and the platform that I have been given by the voters because not everybody can pick up their cell phone and call the mayor in the middle of the night when there’s a fire at a homeless hotel, right?

Not everybody can text their senator and get a response in five minutes about an important issue. Not everybody’s going to get media requests, right? I was recently on CNN and I have never been on CNN before, but it was a chance for me to really speak truth to power about how the murder of George Floyd had changed the landscape in Minneapolis, and then just abroad.

I was really surprised that immediately I had been given this huge platform and huge access that I can use now for people who don’t have it. If the community needs a thing, let me use my access and the privilege that I have now to get that thing.

MSR: In our interview prior to your election, you stressed the need for a greater understanding of the severity of homelessness. What are your thoughts about homeless people being allowed to shelter in Minneapolis parks?

Commissioner Conley: We continue to see these numbers grow. The number of people who are living outside is doubling and tripling every year. And it’s mostly Black and Indigenous people who are living outside and we don’t have access to housing, clean toilets, clean showers, basic human needs. I’ve sat on a region-wide group for the last year on unsheltered homelessness. And one of the most frustrating things to me was the lack of funding invested to get people from the street into supportive housing.

Now what we’ve been doing since COVID, what Hennepin County’s been doing, is we have purchased rooms at hotels. But we’re almost at capacity right now.

So one thing that I am proud of us for doing right now is we recently authorized our county administrator to go out and look for extended-stay hotels to purchase. And what that would do is, these rooms often have kitchenettes in them, which means that it could typically be like its own efficiency apartment—a bathroom, kitchenette, bedroom.

So we’re thinking short term, meaning that we purchase these hotels and get these rooms, we could still continue to help people experiencing homelessness.

But in the long term, they can be turned over to something like supportive housing, which we don’t have enough of right now. So I’m really optimistic about that move because it opens up so many more chances for housing than we have had ever, honestly. This is an epidemic that’s now on top of a pandemic that pulling a lot of resources.

However, we’ve been really trying to get the State to help us get money to get people out of the park. There are tents in almost every park on the South Side now. We’ve got to get the State to help us fund staffing. We could open up more hotel rooms to people, but we don’t have enough staff. It’s really frustrating.

MSR: What should community members do to stay better informed and engaged?

Commissioner Conley: I think every once in a while folks should really watch Hennepin County Board meetings. You know, this is the second-largest level of government in the state. We’ve got a very large budget and we make some big decisions that impact literally every person in this county. So I think it’s important for people to keep that work on their radar.

If there’s something within the city that you think might be an issue, it may be something that I have control over. It may be something that the City has control over, but I want people to know who all of their representatives are.

For more information on the Hennepin County Board, go here.

This interview was conducted by Paige Elliott