MERIDEN — At the outset of Monday night’s City Council discussion of its now adopted resolution formally declaring racism as a public health crisis, Democrat Krystle Blake, who chairs the council’s Human Services Committee, pointed out one of its objectives — education.
That word and others related to it popped up during the discussion, as councilors who supported the resolution stated a need to better understand the disparities — including those related to quality of life, health and employment, not just interactions with law enforcement — experienced by people of color, including African American, Latino and other groups, when compared to people who are not members of those groups.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati acknowledged the education he said “needs to happen,” before calling for a vote on the resolution Monday night. He described the resolution’s adoption as “just a step in a much-needed journey we need to take, hopefully, together.”
The two-page resolution describes racism as causing “persistent discrimination and disparate outcomes in many areas of life, including housing, education, employment, and criminal justice, all of which are a social determinant of overall individual health.”
The resolution’s language also states racism and segregation “have exacerbated a health divide resulting in people of color bearing a disproportionate percentage of illness and mortality rates including COVID-19, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, homicide, and infant mortality.”
It notes different groups of residents, based on racial or ethnic background, are “more likely to experience poor health outcomes” as a result of inequality and that studies have linked racism to those negative outcomes. It highlights racism as “a leading cause of death for Black men.”
City Councilor Sonya Jelks said regardless of the issues being discussed, it’s important to think about everyone.
We’re “not going to make assumptions everybody is starting at the same place,” said Jelks, who is Black. She added that it’s important to remember there are community members “disproportionately impacted by racism.”
Jelks urged collaboration locally.
“Let’s work this out. Let’s figure this out in Meriden. We don’t have to solve the state’s problem. We don’t have to solve the nation’s problem. We can solve Meriden’s problems together,” Jelks said.
Jelks was formally elected Democratic majority leader later during the meeting, taking over for David Lowell, who is stepping down from the council.
Democratic City Councilor Bruce Fontanella said early on in the process of discussing the resolution that was proposed he thought he had an understanding of the disparities faced. Then he realized how little he understood.
“But I was willing to learn. I learned so much during the discussion that we had on this resolution and I look forward to any continuing education that we have so we can better understand that our Black and brown citizens have to deal with issues I as a white person don’t have to deal with,” Fontanella said.
The only vote against the resolution was cast by Bob Williams Jr. of We The People.
Republicans Dan Brunet and Michael Carabetta, two city councilors who had previously expressed skepticism over the resolution, ultimately voted in favor of it.
“I do see and feel how important it is to those of us on the council, those of us in the city,” Carabetta said. “We do have to start working with police to make things better. We have to start working with each other to make ourselves better.”
Carabetta urged his colleagues, as part of that process, to embrace an approach in collaboration that involved listening to understand, rather than to debate talking points.
“Stop listening to respond,” he said.
Another clear objective of the resolution the council adopted is gathering information.
A clause in the resolution related to gathering quality data was amended acknowledging that some funding would be needed in order to gather and analyze such information. During previous meetings, officials had described the possibility that between $10,000 to $12,000 might be needed to support that effort.
Lowell addressed concerns about funding during what was his last meeting as a member of the council.
“If we’re going to be serious about issues here in the city, they require dollars oftentimes,” Lowell said. “If it’s necessary and the council so desires, then it should hit the general fund.”
But, Lowell noted, there may be other opportunities, including grants that city officials are exploring, to support the endeavor.
Democratic City Councilor Michael Rohde described the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020 as a tipping point for the discussion around racism, disparities and fairness. The council has the power to act locally, Rohde explained.
“We hold the levers of power in our community. We’re just asking that we use them effectively to address the health related issues of racism,” Rohde said.