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Kingfisher Institute hosts community forum on racism as a public health crisis

Nov 30, 2021
5 min Read
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Creighton University’s Kingfisher Institute hosted about 100 Omaha public health professionals, community leaders and activists in a virtual discussion that focused on addressing racism as a public health crisis.

The June 22 event was the result of a partnership with the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation (OCCRJR), a community group originally formed in 2018 to plan a commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Will Brown. The group — which includes Palma Joy Strand, JD, professor of law and director of Creighton’s 2040 Initiative in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program, and Christopher M. Whitt, PhD, vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion — has continued holding community meetings to explore how racial violence manifests in Omaha and what can be done to move toward racial justice.

The event centered on the recent decision by the Douglas County Board of Health to declare racism a public health crisis within the county. According to the resolution, systemic racism in Douglas County “has exacerbated a health divide resulting in disparities for premature deaths, death rates for cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease, average and median age of deaths.”

Other preliminary data, the resolution states, suggests that Black residents of the county are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionately higher rate.

The resolution also includes 22 action steps that outline how the health department will address systemic racism from a public health perspective. These steps include establishing an Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice and promoting active engagement with communities of color, said Kerry Kernen, division chief for community health and nutrition services with the health department.

We want the community, each and every one of you, as well as everyone else, to hold us accountable. We’re seeing a difference, feeling a difference, recognizing a difference. I think that’s really going to be key because our community members are first and foremost as we move forward.
— Kerry Kernen, Division Chief for Community Health and Nutrition Services

The event featured remarks from Vickie Young, president of the Omaha NAACP, and Barry Thomas, director of equity and diversity for Omaha Public Schools.

Participants were later divided into smaller breakout video conferences, in which they were encouraged to discuss how the health department’s resolution could positively influence the fight for racial justice, as well as what role they could play in that fight.

“A lot of people are on fire in this moment,” said Thomas, referring to the widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that have gripped the nation in recent weeks. “But we want to focus on … how do we take that moment and make sure it’s a movement?”