Portage County commissioners are preparing to declare racism a public health emergency

A Black Lives Matter protester in Garrettsville raises a sign on Thursday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager


Portage County commissioners are preparing to declare racism a public health emergency

A conversation with County Commission President Kathleen Clyde on what the board is doing to address racial inequality in Portage

Throughout the summer, The Portager has been reaching out to local community leaders to hear their thoughts on addressing racism in Portage County, on the Black Lives Matter movement and on police reform. We spoke with County Commission President Kathleen Clyde on these issues and recently followed up with her regarding an initiative from her office to declare racism a public health crisis in Portage County. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

So I was reading The Portager, funny enough, and saw you went to the protest in Garrettsville on Thursday. How was that?

It was good. I was glad to meet some folks and hear about why they were standing out there and be supportive.

Did anyone offer any insight for you, being a leader in the community? Anyone offer any advice for ways to address things in the community or those types of dialogues?

No, I think that the people protesting in Garrettsville maybe don’t necessarily connect their actions with local county elected office holders. So I more took the opportunity to thank them for standing against racism and just talking to them about what brought them there and explaining who I was.

So when we first talked in June, you had mentioned a few things that you were starting to work on. I’m wondering if you might be able to talk to me a bit about that. Has headway been made on any plans?

We’ve continued working on a declaration for Portage County on racism as a public health crisis. There have been numerous conversations about that with Black leaders in the county, as well as from other areas in the region. We have also had discussions with various leaders in the nonprofit sector, in the healthcare field and other elected leaders. And I think we’re close to moving that forward at the county level here in Portage.

OK, well that sounds like discussing it with NGOs and healthcare folks, that seems like this, for lack of a better term, has more teeth to it—that it might have some actions with it. Is that the case?

Yeah, it is, and I think too that just having support and more leaders and people who see this as a concern is good for change.

I can imagine so. With that, could you tell me some of the things that are part of the declaration, or things you’re hoping to move forward with? Try to sell me on it as a constituent. What would that entail?

I think the important thing is to lay a sound, factual basis for why a declaration is necessary and really showing some of the data from right here in Portage County that outlines some pretty extensive racial disparities. In things like disparities in infant mortality, overall lifespan and major health outcomes like heart disease. Poverty numbers, income disparities—just like there is a gender wage gap nationally, in our state and locally, there’s also a pretty significant racial wage gap. Those types of disparities are part of the problem when it comes to healthcare and quality-of-life outcomes.

It sounds like this is more than just saying, ‘Well, racism is bad.’ This sounds like it’s going to be more on lines of: ‘Racism is bad. Here’s how it’s directly shown in Portage. And here’s how it’s systemic.’

I think that’s right, and I feel like saying “racism is bad” is an over-simplification, I mean, talking about what is racism and how does it manifest here in Portage County, whether it be systemic racism in the economic sphere or when it comes to our healthcare system.

Just the overall effects of dealing with racism every day, and the impact that that can have on somebody’s mental and physical health. I think sometimes you have to talk about that directly and explain where you’re coming from. I think you can encounter people with their guard up, and with a lot of defensiveness about the term racism. But if you kind of break it down and have a longer conversation and tell some of the stories and show some of the data, I think we’re all in a better place to have a meaningful conversation about how we fix this and improve these outcomes so that we’re achieving more equity in our county.

Are you hoping to be able to open more of a dialogue and come to a consensus with folks?

Yes, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing already and that the passage of the resolution is just one piece of it. It’s building the resolution. It’s having the conversations and it’s working on a number of fronts to tackle these issues that are all in the context of a lot of disturbing events happening nationally that make this conversation difficult and distressing for so many. But we just have to keep at it and, you know, I’m hopeful that we can achieve something. I will certainly keep at it.

Something else we talked about before with the declaration, of potential funding for initiatives to address the issues talked about: housing and wage inequality, and all these things. Are there any updates on that front about any moves towards allocation with December’s budget?

Not yet. We just took the first step in our Commission meeting this past week to talk about next year’s budget. We are, for right now, looking at 2020’s budget allocations and starting in a status quo position with our budget as we wait to see the real impact of the pandemic and the recession caused by the pandemic. So we are going in assuming that we will hold county departments to the same budget as 2020’s budget with some measures that we’ve taken, like we have a hiring freeze in place. But you know, we’ll see over the next couple of months what adjustments get made and we’ll know more about our revenue picture. So, this is a pretty tough time for local communities and budgets, and we’re just getting started on our process for next year.

More information will be coming out about this, but we’re looking at a partnership with U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and Ohio State University that has a My Brother’s Keeper program, which is targeted to help improve outcomes for minority youth. I’m working with the senator’s office, the folks at Ohio State and some local leaders here in Portage County to start a My Brother’s Keeper chapter in Portage County to identify outcomes that we want to improve in the county for minority youth. I’ve also been working with the Portage County NAACP to improve communication with the NAACP, their leaders and their members and elected officials in the county. We’re planning on holding some dialogue sessions, and are working to get that on the calendar. I also, as a member of the executive committee and overall board of the Portage Development Board, have been part of a newly created work group to address minority hiring and recruitment with our local businesses and companies, as well as lifting up minority-owned businesses in the county.

And then finally, the Board of Commissioners and especially my colleague, Commissioner Vicki Kline, we have been working with the Portage County NAACP and the King Kennedy Center in Ravenna Township and Family and Community Services at helping them get some additional funding that they need to complete their addition of a gymnasium at the King Kennedy facility. So, I just wanted to leave you with those items, too, as far as some of the work that’s being done to address racial disparities and the racism issue in Portage County.

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Carter Eugene Adams is a freelance documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in Ravenna, Ohio. He is a former multimedia contributor for The Portager.