Racism declared health crisis

PORT TOWNSEND — The Jefferson County Board of Health has declared racism “an acute and chronic public health crisis.”

Nearly three months after work began to draft the resolution, the seven-member board voted 6-1 Thursday to approve it, with board member and County Commissioner David Sullivan casting the lone no vote.

That makes Jefferson the fifth county in the state and one of hundreds of local jurisdictions nationwide to adopt such a resolution, according to a tally by the nonprofit American Public Health Association.

King and Pierce counties made declarations in June, while Snohomish and Spokane counties did so in July, according to that tally.

“I think this has evolved into a very powerful and objective statement,” said board member Denis Stearns. “I don’t think it could get any better.”

Jefferson’s initial draft resolution was based largely on King County’s adopted resolution, however Jefferson’s elevated “the ongoing presence of systemic, cultural and personal racism” experienced by indigenous peoples by stating in its first point that “we live on land usurped from” them.

That language arose as one of two primary points of contention for Sullivan during the resolution’s first reading in August, and it was nearly removed Thursday as he sought to replace it with the first two statements made in an Indigenous People’s Day proclamation approved days earlier by the Board of County Commissioners.

Those points acknowledge that the county sits on the ancestral lands of five tribal nations and that the county honors their tribal treaty rights.

“It’s the state’s position, and it’s the county’s position, that we have to honor those rights,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think we should be diminishing the tribe’s standing in that regard without consulting with them.”

Ultimately, those two points were added to the resolution, but the first point about “land usurped” was preserved. Board member and County Commissioner Kate Dean said she agreed with the additions “in order to be respectful of our tribal neighbors.”

Dean drafted the initial resolution with input from about 30 Jefferson County residents who identify as Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC). That term – BIPOC – had been Sullivan’s other primary point of contention.

“It’s meant to highlight the issues of two groups and diminish those of others,” he said. “I think we could very easily do this resolution without using the [term] BIPOC.”

Based on Sullivan’s concerns during the previous meeting in September, the resolution was updated to say that BIPOC “may not seem or be inclusive enough to all” and that “we understand ‘POC’ or ‘person of color’ to be an umbrella term that broadly refers to all non-white individuals who often face discrimination, including those who have Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Pacific Islander heritage, among others.”

That last part listing specific ethnicities, however, was nixed from the final resolution after Sullivan said it should also include Hispanics or latinos. He also said Black and indigenous people should not be specifically called out.

“Let’s remove the other two glaring examples, and that’s Black and indigenous, if we’re going to eliminate all the others,” he said. “Let’s not jump on a bandwagon that just started a short time ago to please friends in Seattle or wherever … This is the board of health and this a county and we need to treat people equally.”

The final resolution acknowledges that BIPOC is a widely accepted term now, but that “we … encourage the changing of the terminology over time.”

Board member and County Commissioner Greg Brotherton said the board could adjust that terminology in the future if necessary.

“I think that this new addition is strong in acknowledging that we aren’t perfect and the language isn’t perfect but it is trying to be inclusive,” he said.

The resolution states that the board commits to revising its policies, practices and culture with a racial justice and equity lens, participating in racial equity training and seeking diversity in board membership, among other things.

“I’m actually very proud of this statement,” said Pam Adams, board member and Port Townsend City Council member. “It’s the best we could do at this time. I fully support this, with all my heart.”

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Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at [email protected]

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