Our Commitment to Health Equity

Institutional Racism is a Public Health Issue
September 2nd, 2020

Mission: Prevent disease, protect health, and promote an optimal quality of life for all.
Vision:  A Berrien County strategically-focused on improved health outcomes and elimination of health inequities. 

How we define Institutional Racism (structural & systemic racism used interchangeably within):
“Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call "race"), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources." – APHA Past-President, Camara P. Jones, MD, MPH, PhD

 In keeping with our mission and vision, the Berrien County Health Department finds itself in a position to recognize the impact that racism has on public health. Decades of scientific research and evidence have pointed to racism – at its varying levels – as a predominant root cause of inequalities across the social determinants of health, including housing, education, employment, and access to health care. Structural racism, in these systems, is a primary driver of the disproportionate impacts of poverty and poorer health outcomes we see in Black and Brown residents in our community. 

A system of inequality stemming from racism at every level—individual, institutional, systemic—is killing people of color, especially Black residents at alarming rates.  “Optimal quality of life for all”, as a component of the BCHD mission statement, compels us to examine its true meaning in our provision of services and programs.  “Elimination of health inequalities,” (the words that end our vision statement), leads us to identify and name the root causes of health inequities and drives us to work towards systems change to ultimately prevent these inequities from disproportionately impacting people of color in Berrien County. While individual respect and empathy are necessary, they are insufficient alone at addressing structural health inequities and systemic racism.  We acknowledge that racism and discrimination limit people of color in their access to the very opportunities and resources each of us needs for optimal health and well- being. 

We know that racism attacks people’s physical and mental health; the chronic, compounding stressors it causes shows through when we continue to see disproportionate impacts on the health of residents of color.  This has been demonstrated through community health assessments, behavioral risk factor surveys, and many other data sets compiled locally, state-wide and nationally.   When Black moms and babies are three (3) times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than their white counterparts, and when life expectancy in our own county shows that residents in Benton Harbor live on average nineteen years less than residents in Lincoln Township we must look for ways to change and improve our systems and structures that are holding these inequities in place.  

In public health, we look for ways to prevent disease and death and do so through the intervention and change of policies, systems and environments to ensure these areas too are supportive to our communities’ ability to be healthy.  We believe that dismantling racism and advancing equity is essential to our community’s health and know it will take honest and direct conversations, increased education and awareness, and policy and practice change organizationally and systemically.  As a local health department, we are committed to driving change to combat racism in the following ways:

  • Showing value and respect to all individuals we employ, serve, interact and partner with; 
  • Creating an environment that is diverse, inclusive, equitable and resilience-focused;
  • Ensuring all voices are heard, acknowledged and valued; 
  • Working to address issues of racial equity across all department work, policies and practices; and
  • Advocating for policies that improve health for communities and people of color throughout Berrien County.

We do not make this commitment lightly. We know there will be continual work needed by the department to connect with community, build internal and external knowledge and awareness, and support and participate in systems change and improvement. Through community assessment, data use, and a focus on building equitable solutions, we commit to focusing investments into communities most impacted by inequities, to begin healing deep wounds, and to foster trust and partnership so that we might finally build a healthy, safe, resilient, and just community for all.