Earlier this month, the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors (NACBHDD) held its annual Fall Board Meeting virtually. The meeting focused on a series of special sessions with the theme of “Defeating Racism through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)”. This commentary summarizes those special sessions.
Many counties currently are engaging staff as DEI officers to address health, social, economic and racial disparities in their local populations. New initiatives in these areas frequently involve developing a consensus definition of the issues to be addressed, fostering new relationships between county departments, and building community coalitions with local populations. Some counties already are fully engaged in this work; others are just beginning their efforts. The purpose of the NACBHDD sessions was to provide information that will help counties develop and extend these initiatives.
On Day 1, Dr. Martell Teasley, dean of social work at the University of Utah, served as the opening keynote speaker. He contextualized racism as an issue of social disadvantage and disparity perpetuated through practices of community institutions, such as schools, religious organizations, businesses, healthcare organizations and others. From this framework, Teasley traced social disadvantage and disparity of different racial and ethnic groups over the past 400 years. He pointed out that it will be necessary to tackle these community practices if we are to defeat racism. In his view, this is doable, but will take a long-term sustained effort.
A panel followed to highlight current steps being taken by counties at the national, state and local levels to promote DEI. Panelists included Kirsty Fontaine, program director for the National Association of Counties (NACo), Dr. Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA), and Lynn Canfield, county behavioral health director from Champaign County, Illinois.
Nationally, NACo has undertaken a project to encourage counties to formally declare racism as a major public health problem that they must address. At present, many counties are stepping up and making this declaration. In New Jersey, NJAMHAA has undertaken a very broad range of initiatives, programs, featured talks, and consultations to promote DEI in county and local programs. Such a broad-reaching strategy is necessary if effective results are to be achieved. At the local level, the Champaign County Behavioral Health Program is providing leadership to other units of the county, including the County Board, to adopt a strong DEI agenda.
On Day 2, the program included brief talks by representatives of county governments and entities doing innovative work on DEI.
Speakers included Sumaiyah Clark, DEI officer for Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Julie Cassidy, senior policy analyst from the Michigan League for Public Policy; Shonta Chambers, executive vice president of the Patient Advocate Foundation; and Joanne Pierce, assistant county manager for Durham County, North Carolina.
Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, was the first in the nation to declare racism to be a major public health problem. This declaration has enabled the county to undertake key steps to address problems of health and social disparities among different groups in the county. The Michigan League for Public Policy has adopted an important tool, the “21 Day Racial Equity Challenge”, to promote an innovative and challenging framework designed to foster DEI implementation. The Patient Advocate Foundation has both worked with individual persons who are subjected to health and care disparities, as well as offered technical assistance to service organizations, counties, and states to help reduce disparities. Finally, Durham County, North Carolina, has brought to life the interagency collaborations and the community partnerships that are essential to reduce disparities and promote equity via DEI strategies.
Members appreciated NACBHDD’s efforts to define the problem of racial disparities and to offer real world examples of steps that can be taken to address these issues. The organization intends to continue this important work in its 2021 Legislative and Policy Conference scheduled for late winter.