dandelion in front of sunset

Reflections on Juneteenth

By Russell Johnson, President and CEO

This past Wednesday, nearly 50 Montgomery County leaders joined together in two separate sessions to talk about building back a better safety net system in Montgomery County.  The leaders work in health and human services, businesses, colleges and universities, local and state government, the faith community, and the legal community. While these groups have talked before, on this Wednesday something important happened – people talked explicitly about racism, and what it would mean for the social safety net to adopt anti-racist practices and advocate for anti-racist policies.

Their passion was palpable. To be sure, our group was diverse demographically, but heavily represented by White professionals.  Still, they observed how our larger community has rallied together during the pandemic to support the needs of fellow residents impacted by COVID and to join in protests supportive of the Black Lives Matter! Others spoke of the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 virus on nursing home residents and the caregivers who are Black or Brown or persons of color.  And some talked about the fear their clients experience when police are dispatched for wellness checks, to respond to mental health crises or other non-criminal calls, especially when the person in need is a person of color or recent immigrant.  Throughout the discussion, there was recognition that the fear is real, that it comes because of institutionalized policies and practices that are designed to control behaviors and restore social norms – White people norms. 

During this discussion, no one was directly pointing the finger at our local police, our elected officials, our foundation or institutional leaders, yet the finger was pointed at all of us.  We represent and help to sustain the current system that is rigid and built to disenfranchise people of color from feeling safe, secure and valued. A system built on racist ideologies- truly built on and perpetuated by government systems- cannot value people of color. We perpetuate systems that don’t provide equitable access to resources, such as through limited language access for non-native English speakers, persons with disabilities, and others.

Juneteenth commemorates the day slavery ended in our country.  It’s a day for celebration and reflection.  Yet while the institution of slavery is gone, its impact on all Americans persists. White Americans benefit today from white privilege and white supremacy, which are rooted in the practice of slavery. Black Americans and people of color are not only subject to ongoing personal and systemic racism, but also impacted financially, educationally, in their health, and in myriad other ways through decades of systemic racism.

The questions our country is beginning to ask today are central to accounting for, undoing, and rebuilding our country in anti-racist beliefs and practices. Why is it that we continue to invest huge sums of public funds to control people rather than help them?  Why is it that we send the police to respond to personal crises instead of trained crisis response workers and counselors?  Why do break apart families placing children in foster care, instead of helping to pay rent and provide services designed to keep families intact?  Why do we support tax relief that only helps high-wage earners instead of supporting living wage policies and practices?  This list of racist, institutional practices is long and the time for change is past due. 

HealthSpark staff and board is hard at work to build back a better social safety net system in Montgomery County.  We invite you to help us and those directly engaged in this work.  We envision a more just and equitable system and this is the time to build it by re-prioritizing our policy goals and objectives, eliminating racist practices, building self-awareness and making our county a safe and welcoming place to live for all people of color.