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Washtenaw United: Racism a public health crisis in Washtenaw County

Washtenaw County Health Equity Manager Charlyn Vandeventer.
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County Health Equity Manager Charlyn Vandeventer.


Charlyn VanDeventer serves as Health Equity Manager for the Washtenaw County Health Department.


Washtenaw County Health Department

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Washtenaw County's Health for All

Washtenaw County Community Health Assessment - 2023

Washtenaw County Board of Health Names Racism as a Public Health Crisis


David Fair: There are those who contend that racism is not a significant issue. The evidence here in Washtenaw County and all around the country says that contention is wrong. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan is entering its last week of the 21-Day Equity Challenge. And racism as a public health crisis--well, that's among the topics. And we wanted to supplement that with a conversation on how it's being addressed in Washtenaw County. Our guest is steeped in addressing this issue on a local level. Charlyn VanDeventer is health equity manager with the Washtenaw County Health Department. And thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today, Charlyn!

Charlyn VanDeventer: Thank you!

David Fair: How do you personally respond to those who downplay racism in our community or anywhere?

Charlyn VanDeventer: You know, I think that for folks who might want to downplay it, we have to just kind of look at all the root causes that impact someone's health--so where a person lives and the education that they've had and access to food, all of those things. When you really start to dig and kind of go back a long way, it can be kind of built up on structural racism. It has been foundational in the country that we live in. And so, even though it's sometimes might not be obvious every day, the opportunity that a person can have is based on that. Access to resources can be based on that. And so, it's important for us just to go ahead and start to name that. So then, that way, we can really start to address those issues.

David Fair: As a formal acknowledgment of structural racism, back in 2020, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners declared racism a public health crisis. It then hired the county's first ever racial equity officer and recently added your position as health equity manager. How do you see your role in addressing structural bias in public health?

Charlyn VanDeventer: My role--it is a new role--at the health department, but we've been doing this work for a long time because health equity has been foundational to what public health does. My particular role is to just make sure that with all of the programs that we're looking at and doing within our community and the data that we're looking at is to really try to embed health equity and all of those programs, make sure that it is across the board with our staff, make sure that when our programs go out into the community, when we're working with our community, is just a way of making sure that we are held accountable to those processes and those standards and making sure that we address all that we can.

David Fair: Well, as you have explored the programs and myriad of services being offered to address the inequities in public health in Washtenaw County, what has most impressed you about the way county government is addressing structural racism?

Charlyn VanDeventer: We've named it. We called it out. We said that racism does have an impact within our county and that we need to address it. So, we need to be able to start looking at where our communities are and then how they are built up. And we want to just be able to just start pulling out some of those programs. So then, that way, we can go ahead and make sure that we're allocating resources to those who most need it.

David Fair: And as you have done the work on a day-to-day basis, what areas have you identified as being in need of more and better programs?

Charlyn VanDeventer: So, this past year, in 2023, our health department conducted a community health assessment, and we worked with our community. We asked. We held focus groups to try to see, like, where should we focus some of our effort within the next coming five years. And we identified some key areas. We identified that we want to look at, like, access to health care. We looked at and noticed that we want to be able to do more around mental health access, and we also wanted to do more around food access. So, those are things where our community members have told us that this is where we can have an impact and being able to address some of the barriers that are preventing everyone within our county from accessing these services.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation on racism as a public health crisis continues on 89 one WEMU. Today, we're talking with Washtenaw County Health Department health equity manager Charlyn VanDeventer. Now, you mentioned access. That has been a huge issue and is being addressed. But even when granted access, we can statistically prove that people of color do not get the same level of care. How are you addressing that part of structural racism in public health?

Charlyn VanDeventer: So, again, this is one of those things where we really have to work with our community in order to address some of these issues, then it has to be informed and through our community engagement. So, I think it is one starting off with working with our community members and hearing those stories of like how this is impacting them and then being able to kind of come up with a solution to be able to address it. So, what are some of the things that are preventing it? Are we looking at transportation? Are we looking at availability of appointments? Are we looking at any implicit bias that they might be experiencing and then also kind of creating some solutions based on what they're actually experiencing? It's not going to be enough for us to say, "Well, we know that this is a problem here." We need to actually know how it is affecting people, so we can make the solutions that are tailored to actually address that.

David Fair: How do you help overcome the mistrust of the health care system that is so prevalent in many marginalized communities?

Charlyn VanDeventer: That is a huge challenge. There is a level of mistrust that has been pervasive for a long time. And as an institution, public health does have to be accountable for that. And so, it's acknowledging that, and it's also knowing that we have to build trust with our community members. And that's where that whole community engagement and having these conversations and taking our time and building relationships and maintaining relationships is so important. We can't do it from behind our closed doors that we always have to make sure that we're opening those doors. We have to make sure that we remember that we live in this community. We are a part of the community. And so, that two-way communication is foundational.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking racism as a public health crisis with Charlyn VanDeventer from the Washtenaw County Health Department. And, Charlyn, as we talk about root causes, we have to include environmental factors and the disparate health outcomes it creates. It is perhaps most noticeable in major industrial areas like Detroit, but it certainly happens in Washtenaw County, too. How are you strategically and programmatically addressing environmental justice?

Charlyn VanDeventer: That is a great question. As we're looking at current events, we're looking at a very hot summer. We are looking at weather. And so, will we have to consider like that environmental justice piece as well? Depending on where people live, they might experience more of the challenges that come with those extremes. And so, again, it's really making sure that we are working with our community members and being able to see, like, this is the impact. So, how are we going to address it? What programs do we need? What resources do we need to reallocate or make sure that they get to the proper hands? What funds are available to be able to help build up communities? How are we making sure that our community members are also connecting and advocating? All of that also goes into what public health is. It's not just looking in and saying, "Okay, let's count and see how many that is." It's also helping to make sure that we're building up or recognizing the threat or communicating that threat and then also giving people the information that they need to be able to address it.

David Fair: It's interesting. Through the course of our conversation, the word "resources" has come up a number of times, and resources frequently equates to money. It is often said, "Show me your budget, and I'll show you your values." From your vantage point, does the Washtenaw County budget adequately reflect a set of values that supports the ongoing work to address the structures that have created racism as a public health crisis?

Charlyn VanDeventer: I think when we look at our Washtenaw County budget and then what that budget for the health department where I'm sitting here, the fact that they've gone and put in that investment for this position, that they have invested in the community health assessment and those conversations and that work with community, I think shows that we are engaged in that long term work of being able to listen to our partners, to be able to take that in and to be able to address it. As budgets are one of those things that we recognize, they change annually, but it is that commitment by our board to kind of fund jobs, like my position and other equity positions. That shows that this is something that needs to be maintained and that they are committed to being responsible to look at those outcomes over time.

David Fair: Charlyn, I want to thank you so much for the conversation and for sharing your insights today. Much appreciated!

Charlyn VanDeventer: Thank you for having me!

David Fair: That is Charlyn VanDeventer, health equity manager with the Washtenaw County Health Department and our guest on Washtenaw United. Discussing racism as a public health crisis: that is a topic inspired by an issue addressed this week in the ongoing 21-Day Equity Challenge, as put forth by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. It runs through Friday, June 14th. We have more information on today's conversation and on the challenge at our website at wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s fourth annual 21-Day Equity Challenge is officially underway, and for the duration of the challenge, we’re covering different topics related to Equity on Washtenaw United.

Today’s topic for conversation from the Equity Challenge is Day Seventeen: Racism is as Public Health Crisis.

The field of public health is population-based and seeks to protect and improve the health of people and their communities. Public health envisions a healthy community, wherever you live, where every resident has the opportunity to achieve optimal health and equitable wellbeing.

But, even when we account for individual factors such as education, class and income, health inequity still exists. These health disparities are largely due to racism. The goal of health equity for all can only be achieved if we recognize and call out the harm that racism causes to the health, longevity, and wellbeing of people of color.

What is the 21-Day Equity Challenge?

The 21-Day Equity Challenge is a commitment to learn the different ways that bias, prejudice, privilege, and oppression show up in our everyday lives through a series of emails.

When does the 21-Day Equity Challenge start?

The challenge will take place each weekday from May 17-June 14.

How do I participate in the 21-Day Equity Challenge?

Sign up online to receive an email each of the 21 days asking you to Listen, Read, Watch, and Act on issues affecting our community.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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