Amherst board to address racism as public health issue

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2021 2:39:25 PM

AMHERST — Racism is being identified as a public health issue in Amherst by the Board of Health, the first step in what board members hope will be actions that can be taken to address the problem.

While board members are leaving it to the Town Council to issue a declaration related to racism, Chairwoman Nancy Gilbert said at the board’s July meeting that she would like to see more than just a statement be issued, observing that the COVID-19 pandemic has had serious consequences for Black, Latino and other people of color, with three times the rate of death, disability and severe cases from the illness.

Gilbert said she will begin putting racism as a topic on the board’s monthly agendas and is ready to recruit Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) residents to serve on the appointed board, and to make sure the town has community health workers that reflect the communities of need.

Lauren Mills, a resident involved in social justice matters, told the board that town management, businesses, schools, health institutions, and colleges and universities all have a role to play in addressing racism’s health impacts. Mills said there are collective and collaborative ways to solve the issue and make Amherst better for people who live and experience racism.

“We have to think to the generations, not just ourselves, not just our children, but our children's children, if we really want to solve the problems, and how racism is impacting all aspects of our health and society,” Mills said.

Mills cited research done by Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who studies race and health at Emory University, and a webinar Jones participated in for the American Public Health Association’s Advancing Racial Equity series titled “Racism: The Ultimate Underlying Condition.”

Among concrete steps that can be taken, Mills said, are closing the digital divide, providing better access to health services, improving public education with anti-racism curriculum, doing more police oversight and getting alternative public safety services, creating Black spaces in entrepreneurship and healing toxic stress due to perceived racism.

Some of these ideas are already recommendations that have come from the town’s Community Safety Working Group, with recommendations for a BIPOC cultural center and a youth empowerment center.

Ben Herrington, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, said he would like to see incorporating more ideas that will improve lives, such as the health board advocating more access to healthcare.

“We've discussed this a lot at the Human Rights Commission, what can we actually do to be effective, and one of our steps was to partner with you,” Herrington said.

Herrington said the hope is to not only get Town Council to commit to declaring a public health crisis but then following this up with action.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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