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Burlington declares racism a public health emergency

Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 6:23 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 17, 2020 at 9:53 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and other groups Thursday morning declared that racism is a public health emergency in the city.

Weinberger was joined by members of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and over 30 other individuals and organizations at the for the declaration on Church Street outside of City Hall.

“Racism is a public health crisis,” Weinberger said. “As a result of deeply embedded structural racism, Black and brown Americans experience far worse outcomes then their white contemporaries.”

The mayor points out that those populations are also infected by COVID-19 at three times the rate of other Americans, and at even higher rates in Vermont. “Though Black residents comprise just 1% of Vermont’s population, during the current pandemic -- as of July 8th -- they account for 10% of the total confirmed COVID-19 cases in Vermont,” Weinberger said.

Coalition members say persistent barriers to housing, employment and education, compounded by years of race-based health disparities, is what led to this moment. “We are trying to move from a place where folks’ backs are being ridden to where we can stand on the shoulders of those same people,” said Mark Hughes with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance.

As part of the declaration, the group outlined three main goals. They include a commitment to eradicating racism within their organizations, immediate and specific actions to address the emergency in the work that they do, and a commitment to participate in ongoing actions to eliminate race-based health disparities.

Burlington plans to create the new position of Public Health Equity Manager to support the efforts.

“Our job is not to be saviors but to find areas where you have embedded racism in your institution and to remove it,” said Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1.

Other examples include the UVM Medical Center starting a workforce diversity assessment to identify gaps in equity and reveal learning opportunities. The Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce plans to provide education to businesses on how to take action toward racial equity.

Weinberger says the city will use metrics to evaluate success. "We are going to measure it, we are going to track it, it's not going to happen overnight but over time we are going to make those disparities a thing of the past," he said.

The mayor likens the effort to the city’s battle against opioids, where it is collaborating with several organizations and businesses and using metrics to measure progress.

The increased focus on racial disparity in Burlington comes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and nationwide protests this spring.

A divided Burlington City Council last month passed a resolution declaring racism a citywide crisis and cut police funding by 10%, eliminating 12 vacant positions. Progressives on the council have pushed for even further defunding of the police, something that Weinberger has so far opposed.

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