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Manuel Ellis’ death a tragic reminder racism is a public health crisis

A year ago today, Manuel Ellis—a Black man who was a father, a son, and a member of our community—died while in police custody. Our hearts go out to his family for the pain and loss rekindled on this tragic anniversary. Our hearts go out as well to our community that shares the grief and anger.

The medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide. Similar killings across the country caused outrage, anger, and calls for change. His was particularly painful and disappointing because it was here at home. We listened to the voices of our community last year about the need for action. The message was clear: it is time to dismantle the institutions and systems that perpetuate racism, violence, poverty, and injustice.

A policy intervention to improve health.

Following the national awakening about racial inequity and injustice, our Board of Health unanimously passed a resolution on June 17, 2020, that declared racism a public health crisis. This policy decision recognizes the intersection of health and racism.

The Health Department mobilized an emergency response team—the Racism and Resilience Action Response Team (RRART)—to support countywide efforts to tackle racism and unfairness and help the Department become an anti-racist organization. The team will work with community partners to change policies, systems, and environments to counter the effects of racism and promote racial equity. Its objectives are to:

  • Elevate racism as a public health crisis through data.
  • Support staff and commit to department-wide anti-racism development.
  • Develop and support racial equity policies.
  • Commit to racial equity in communications strategies.
  • Fund the work of transforming systemic racism.
  • Engage and uplift communities affected by racism, particularly anti-black racism.

What are we doing to improve racial equity?

To help you keep track of our work and hold us accountable, RRART publishes a monthly list of achievements on our racial equity webpage. Look under the “Racism is a public health crisis” heading.

Within our agency, RRART used a racial equity lens to review human resources and procurement policies and make recommendations for continuous improvement. It is training staff to recognize how racism shows up in our work, policies, and interpersonal relationships. We have developed affinity groups that give staff a safe place to share their thoughts and provide recommendations on internal racial justice issues.

Outside our agency, RRART reached out to local community leaders to support their equity work and supported other government agencies in the county with developing resolutions on racism.

The Department will focus on critical opportunities that have the biggest influence on racial equity, population health and well-being, and health equity. The Department’s participatory policymaking pilot project is an example of this work. It focuses on the ideas and priorities from our racial and ethnic communities who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The participatory process involves listening to community members, focusing policy solutions on community identified priorities, and co-creating solutions with community leaders, policy implementers and policymakers. 

The Department is also participating in the national Resilience Catalysts in Public Health initiative for three years. It will work across sectors to eliminate adversity, foster equity, and build resilience by leading policy, practice, and program change.

Much has changed in the year since Mr. Ellis’ death, but even more work remains. Equity, justice, and concrete actions pave the road to healing, and we are all on this journey together.

Learn more at