Hundreds gathered on June 5 at Phoenix Park in Eau Claire to protest racism and police violence against people of color. The Eau Claire County Board is considering a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Earlier this month, the Eau Claire County Administration Committee approved a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.

The resolution outlines the ways in which racism manifests, including housing, education, employment and criminal justice. It also proposes six action steps the County Board should take going forward to ensure that racial equity is a key factor in all county decisions, including a review of internal policies and procedures; increasing diversity and instituting antiracist policies; and working with local entities to make racial progress.

During its Tuesday meeting, the County Board tabled the resolution until next month, asking the Eau Claire City-County Health Department for input before voting on the resolution in July, which it will likely approve.

During the public comment section of Tuesday’s meeting, resident David Carlson expressed support for the resolution. Carlson works at Milkweed Connections in Menomonie and is an ACLU Eau Claire County regional organizer. In his job at Milkweed, Carlson often works with children of color.

The resolution “legitimizes the young people’s challenges,” Carlson wrote. “It gives them validation that what they are experiencing is not imagined. It also forces providers, educators, law enforcement, etc. to take a hard look at why this issue is not at the forefront of their minds when they are interacting with the public. The problem exists within the social consciousness of Wisconsin white culture, not within the genetic makeup, skin color or minds of kids of color.”

Carlson is in favor of the declaration but said many other steps must occur to achieve racial equity, including reallocating funds from law enforcement and drug task forces to reentry initiatives, homeless shelters, addiction programs and peer support programs to reduce recidivism.

“The announcement that racism is a public health crisis is a start, but it is only the beginning,” he wrote. “Drastic action must be taken now. If it is not, we will be back here again in the future repeating this process. Or it will be our kids who are here dealing with the same problems. This is a moral issue we are facing. The black and brown community has paid the consequences of inaction far too long. Is Eau Claire County going to take real steps forward in remedying this wrong?”

Residents and officials say several steps can be taken to begin addressing racism locally, starting with the awareness that a problem exists. From there, people must confront and educate themselves and others about racism; work toward ensuring leaders in positions of power are representative of the people they serve; and create practices and policies that lead to racial equity.

Local disparities

Supervisor Kimberly Cronk brought forth the resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, which she called an ongoing issue.

“This is not new to our community,” Cronk said.

Cronk hopes racial equity becomes an “overarching structure” of the county’s work. She said the county needs to ask itself why racial inequities exist and what changes it can make to improve them. That will include gaining perspectives of people directly impacted by racial disparities.

The County Board, whose 29 supervisors are overwhelmingly white, must also ask if it accurately reflects the people it serves, she said.

“We can’t work in various entities to try to reduce racial and ethnic disparities if we have very closed or limited tables,” Cronk said. “When you don’t have a broad perspective of people to ensure that we have antiracist policies, even if you have good intentions, you may very well perpetuate racist policies without knowing that that’s what you’re doing.”

The proposed language in the county resolution closely resembles a declaration issued by the Wisconsin Public Health Association in 2018.

Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese was president of the WPHA, of which the Health Department is a member, when it declared racism a public health crisis two years ago. The declaration said racism “saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

Giese said that means all people pay more in the long run as a result of racial health disparities, be it higher insurance costs or emergency medical treatment or maintaining the county jail.

She said community members should internalize those ideas and begin working to combat them.

“I think it’s easy in Eau Claire to say, ‘Well, we’re white,’ but that’s not entirely true, and people have different experiences in Eau Claire if they have black and brown skin, and we have to acknowledge that,” Giese said during a Jan. 2 interview with the Leader-Telegram.

During a Wednesday media briefing, Giese said COVID-19 has illustrated the racial health disparities in the county, state and country.

As of Friday, according to Giese, Eau Claire County’s population is 8% non-white, yet those people account for 21% of the county’s positive coronavirus cases. In Wisconsin, non-white people make up about 13% of the population but 35% of the state’s positive cases and 29% of COVID-19 deaths.

“Race has made a difference in this disease like it does in many diseases, not because the color of someone’s skin makes someone more susceptible to disease but because racism and its structural issues make a difference in people’s outcomes,” Giese said. “This is not specific to COVID-19 and it’s work that we need to continue to do every day, and it’s something we’re committed to doing.”

Selika Ducksworth Lawton, president of Uniting Bridges and UW-Eau Claire history professor, said the resolution is a good first start.

She said racism affects all people in some form, so understanding that combating it is good for everyone can help lead to progress.

“What happens to black people does happen to white people eventually,” Ducksworth Lawton said.

Ducksworth Lawton, who is African American, has lived in the area since 1993. Generally speaking, she said most residents are friendly during surface-level interactions but ignorant on deeper racial issues. Ducksworth Lawton, who grew up in Louisiana, said white people often assume things based on her appearance and are surprised when she doesn’t fit their preconceived notion.

“If you’re an upper-middle class black person here, people will treat you well but they act shocked,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “I’ve had multiple people tell me I’m not really black, I don’t act black or ask me where I am really from, thinking that I’m foreign-born, because I don’t sound and look like the stereotype … If you’re a black person and you adhere to saintliness, you’ll be OK, but you don’t have a margin for error.”

Ducksworth Lawton said white people must talk with other white people about racism, saying some residents get away with saying racial epithets because of many Wisconsinites’ “refusal to make waves.”

Indeed, Cronk said the idea of “Midwestern nice” doesn’t lead to racial equity. Without having difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations, progress will not be made.

“We need to dig down and start having some serious confrontation with our history,” Cronk said.

‘Humanize’ one another

Ducksworth Lawton said stereotyping is at the heart of many racial problems, since people don’t know enough about citizens who look different and have different experiences than them, which leads to ignorance.

Instead of becoming reflexively defensive when racism is discussed, people should reflect and consider factors that contribute to health disparities, such as hiring practices or judging how someone will act based on name and appearance.

“It’s the presumption that, ‘Of course we would never be someone that would be racist,’ and that typically is coming from places where we haven’t spent a lot of time looking at it,” Giese said during a Jan. 2 interview with the Leader-Telegram.

Cronk said it is crucial to forge personal connections to learn about the experiences of others.

“We need to be humanizing one another,” Cronk said. “That is really the root of all of this. How are we knowing each other and humanizing each other?”

Darton Weaver agreed. Weaver grew up in Eau Claire and graduated from North High School in 2019. He is African American and was constantly aware that wherever he went, people looked at him differently because of his skin.

“Throughout my years shopping at our local grocery store in Eau Claire, I can remember countless times when my white mother and I went shopping together and the cashier would place a divider in between what items I placed on the counter and what my mother did,” Weaver wrote in an email.

To improve, community members “should be placing immediate action in four areas,” Weaver wrote. “The first of which is on a personal level by changing conflicting, ignorant, and problematic thoughts or feelings in order to increase awareness and openness to learning about these issues.

“Act interpersonally by engaging in inclusive and open dialogue to increase communication about the issues we are facing in order to impact behavior and relationships. Act institutionally to identify barriers, then strive to create policies, practices, and programs that support equitable outcomes. Act culturally to create inclusive environments representative of and welcoming to the community’s diversity.”

Weaver said resistance to change presents a large barrier to racial equity.

“The biggest challenge standing between the Eau Claire community and a model fight against racism that could have influence across our great state is simply a fear of change,” Weaver wrote.

Cronk agreed, saying “challenging the status quo” is a significant impediment to racial progress.

The racial status quo can be improved by white people in positions of power listening and then taking action based on educated decisions. More people of color in leadership positions with the ability to enact change can lead to progress as well.

“How are we getting more diverse perspectives and experiences on every level, whether it’s the county, the city, the school board, all areas that have the ability to create change?” Cronk said.

Weaver said locals should ask themselves several questions to better address racism: How many instructors of color work in the Eau Claire Area School District? How many leaders of color sit on the County Board and Eau Claire City Council? How many black-owned businesses are in Eau Claire? How many of Eau Claire’s 100 sworn law enforcement officers are people of color?

“Representation is key,” Weaver wrote. “Growing up in Eau Claire was so detrimental to my perspective on the national populace. I found no identity in my race growing up and struggled a lot with that as a young kid. I never had a teacher, coach, mentor, or leader of color growing up in the ECASD.”

Power of Perception

Power of Perception, a new grassroots organization started by Eau Claire resident Dennis Beale, aims to provide opportunities to local students that weren’t available to Weaver.

Power of Perception showcases different careers of people of color to ECASD middle-schoolers and high-schoolers of color. The mission is to “equip young kings and queens” with tools to become strong citizens, Beale said.

Power of Perception launched in February and entails professionals of color speaking to students about their career paths. Beale said it hopefully gives area students the chance to picture themselves in different careers and learn from people who come from all walks of life.

Recent events have included a barber, OB-GYN and bank branch manager sharing their stories over video calls. Beale encouraged speakers to discuss the good, bad and ugly — in other words, the humanity — of their experiences.

Beale mainly focuses on individual improvements, particularly for adolescents and young adults of color. On the community scale, he hopes changes come from overdue conversations spurred by officer-involved killings of black Americans, such as George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.

“We’re just now talking about this,” Beale said. “Why does it have to come to a point of us having something go viral (like the death of George Floyd) for us to start having a voice?”

Beale and Ducksworth Lawton both mentioned the impact of awareness and lack thereof, noting that many people don’t understand that people of different races have different daily experiences in the Chippewa Valley.

For example, Beale tenses up when he sees a police vehicle.

“That fear of the unknown, that fear of, “What’s going to happen if I get pulled over?’” Beale said. “Do I put my hand on the steering wheel? And if I act nervous in front of a police officer, what does that do for the police officer? That makes them suspicious.”

Beale encouraged white people to imagine themselves in the shoes of a black person and how it would be different from their experience.

“Look at what happened to George Floyd,” Beale said. “Just imagine if that was your child … How would you feel?”

Building momentum

Ducksworth Lawton said a challenge to equity involves white people having anxiety about saying or doing the wrong thing around people of other races. But she said if people mean well, they will likely receive the benefit of the doubt.

Cronk agreed, saying fear of making a mistake should not lead to inaction.

“The worst thing we could do right now is nothing,” Cronk said. “We have to keep building momentum. We have to seek knowledge from others. We also have to be able to do that strong, internal, deep, cellular work within ourselves.”

Beale said having an understanding of the country‘s racial history is important, but the next steps involve direct work, in whatever form that takes.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Beale said. “You gotta get in the field. You gotta make it happen.”

Cronk said errors will inevitably occur as people are working toward racial equity. The key is learning from mistakes and repeatedly striving for justice rather than being discouraged.

Thoroughly reviewing individual attitudes and organizational policies and changing them when needed is difficult. Racial equity will not happen overnight. It is an ongoing challenge to address complex, historical issues, but one Cronk believes many people are willing to tackle.

“It’s a marathon; this is not going to be a sprint,” Cronk said. “It’s not a checklist. It’s not a T-shirt you throw on or a bumper sticker you hang on your car and you’re done … I’m hoping that people continue to do the practices and repetition and do the work.”