Black Lives Must Matter - A letter from Secretary of Health John Wiesman
I am sure many of you, like me, are stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened by the senseless and violent death of George Floyd. The brutal killing of yet another Black man, under the unrelenting force of a white police officer and other officers standing by, letting it happen, serves as a sobering reminder that racial profiling is actively destroying our families and communities. It also points to why racism—including structural and institutionalized racism and the resulting harm to Black individuals and other People of Color—is a public health threat that can’t be ignored. As communities across our state and around the country show up in peaceful protest, my heart goes out to my fellow DOH colleagues who identify as Black or as a Person of Color—I can’t even begin to imagine what you must be feeling in this moment. Please know that I stand against this dehumanizing act of violence and hatred and stand with you in solidarity, justice, and love.
As a public health agency, we must also acknowledge other recent acts of violence and mourn the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Too many innocent Black lives have been viciously and prematurely taken away in a longstanding pattern of hate, bias, and discrimination. These patterns are entrenched in centuries of systemic racism, and especially anti-Black racism and white supremacy—an unfortunate and enduring legacy of U.S. slavery, segregation, and resulting historical trauma. We know that racist violence is deeply intertwined with this country’s history, and it will take substantial nationwide reform of the policing and court systems to change this awful reality.
It is a shame that a national outrage is serving as a rude awakening for many of us that violence against Black lives has occurred since the founding of this nation. The broader public health and healthcare system too has been a bystander, and in some egregious circumstances, complicit in perpetuating harm. While more recently, DOH has taken intentional action to dismantle the root causes of health inequities, including structural racism and other forms of oppression, there is a lot of work ahead of us. Some of that work includes reducing health inequities for historically marginalized and oppressed populations, creating space for and a culture of belonging within our agency that proactively recruits and retains People of Color, including Black individuals, and using my positional authority and power to prioritize resources, policies, and decisions that counteract institutional bias and racism.
DOH must continue to respond and lead with racial equity and social justice. This type of leadership can be uncomfortable yet necessary. It requires that we center, honor, and prioritize the health, wellbeing, and lived experience of historically marginalized and oppressed communities—including Black, Indigenous and People of Color, individuals with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community, to name just a few.
Reflecting on my journey as an educated, white, gay man with a lot of privilege, I implore that each of us, and in particular my white colleagues, take the time to read, learn, and understand how systemic racism, white supremacy, and white privilege work in conjunction and in intersectional ways. In ways that uphold practices and policies that perpetuate intergenerational harm and trauma and disproportionately impact communities of color and other marginalized groups.
Much of the movement we have seen within our country, state, and even our own agency has been the result of tireless work of People of Color. Although addressing and undoing the inequities unfortunately reflected within our own agency’s culture, structure, and systems is not the responsibility of employees of color, we must acknowledge it is them who have led and continue to lead us. I, for one, am extremely grateful. I have been given the opportunity to be educated by and learn from many of you, even though—as a white person—it is my responsibility to take this re-education and un-learning upon myself. I have another direct ask to other white leaders, managers, and staff across the agency. Listen. Listen not only to the experiences and stories you may hear about outside our walls, but listen to what your colleagues of color have likely been sharing inside our walls. And then respond, with helpful action. If you don’t know where to start, the Equity & Social Justice collaborative—led by the Center for Public Affairs, Community Relations & Equity team—are here to help. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As employees of a first-responder agency, many of us are undoubtedly under a lot of stress at the moment. These horrific events may further exacerbate feelings of despair, loss, grief or anxiety. If you or a family member would like some help in navigating these difficult times, please contact the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This program is confidential, free, and proven to help state employees and their families. Alternatively, you can use your health plan benefits. I also ask that managers and supervisors proactively reach out to their teams to identify how they can provide support and flexibility as needed.
Our agency’s mission is to “work with others to protect and improve the health of ALL people in Washington state.” We must ask ourselves: as a public health system and as a nation, why are we not able to fully protect and improve the health and lives of Black people? Our agency, like each of us, is imperfect and actively learning to do better. But as we take stock of what is unfolding in this moment, each of us has an opportunity to truly and wholly acknowledge, honor, and respect Black lives, Black bodies, and Black communities. Black lives must matter.
John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH
Secretary of Health
Washington State Department of Health