In the final 2020 “Fresh Perspectives” blog post presented by the de Beaumont Foundation, M Adams, left, a community organizer and co-executive director of Freedom Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin, and Karma R. Chávez, PhD, associate professor and chair in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at UT Austin, share ways they’ve combated racism and affected meaningful change. Chávez is also affiliated with the Department of Communication Studies, the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, the Center for Mexican American Studies, and the LGBTQ Studies Program.

We believe public health officials, like so many other people with power in this country, have an opportunity and an obligation to continue to use their privilege to speak out in support of the Movement for Black Lives. Yet understanding the intersections of racism and health requires addressing the structural racism reflected in policing and prisons, as opposed to emphasizing people’s beliefs about racial superiority.

Combating racism requires understanding how power works so you can change it and take it. Put differently, it matters less whether you think you’re better than me, than if you have the structural power to do something about it.

In the book we are co-authoring, After Ferguson: Black, Queer, Feminist Experiments Against Police and Jails, we discuss the many ways we attempted to bring this type of analysis to bear on debates about racial disparities, police, and the county jail in Madison, Wisconsin, during a two-year period following the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, and still, Madison was one of the worst places, if not the worst place in the United States for Black people to live on measures related to education, health, unemployment, and policing. At the same time, largely white Madison is known — and widely considers itself — a progressive bastion full of organic food, workers’ and housing cooperatives, and an array of public goods.

Convincing white progressives in power, who hold no personal animus against Black folks, that they perpetuate and benefit from structural racism is an uphill battle. One of the means of persuasion M used in her role as executive director of the local organization Freedom Inc. was to enlist the support of people with race, class, and education privilege at the University of Wisconsin. One such person was Karma, who shared M’s analysis of racism and what it will take to end it, and who would use their privilege to uplift the voices of working class, Black queer, and trans folks.

Working together, our tactics include:

  • using university resources to bring in radical Black speakers to give lectures and provide trainings for organizers;
  • using fancy titles to get into meetings with prominent officials only to turn the meeting directly over to Black organizers;
  • providing meeting space for organizers;
  • writing op-eds; and
  • holding other public space for Freedom Inc.’s analysis that at the time would not have been as available to leaders from that organization.

During those two years, we used our collaboration to create space to publicly debate the police department’s decision over whether to use body cameras, and we held a public debate between M and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney over whether a new jail he wanted to build would create community safety. In both instances, after the debate, public opinion swayed toward the position Freedom Inc. held — against expanding police power of all kinds on the grounds that such expansions have disproportionate negative effects on Black communities. MPD still doesn’t use body cameras, and the jail construction stalled for years.

We can’t take sole credit for these wins, and there were certainly many losses, too, but we believe our collaborative experiments had an important hand in urging the public university to better serve parts of the public it often ignores. We call on public health officials to do the same.

Explore the many APHA 2020 Annual Meeting sessions and presentations related to racial justice, and don’t miss the Closing General Session on Wednesday afternoon, “Moving Away from Hate — A Way Forward.”

This blog post was first published on APHA’s Public Health Newswire.

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