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Olmsted County set to tackle race and racism as a public health issue

Commissioners accepted a report outlining recommendations to address systemic racism in an effort to improve health outcomes for all residents.

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Olmsted County commissioners, staff and members of the county's Human Rights Commission and Public Health Services Advisory Board talk in the rotunda outside board chambers of the city-county Government Center on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, during a reception following acceptance of a report on race and racism as a public health issue.
Randy Petersen / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — A report highlighting 42 recommendations for addressing race and racism as a public health issue was accepted by Olmsted County commissioners Tuesday morning.

“It’s a conversation we need to have as a broader community,” Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said in joining the unanimous acceptance of the report, which followed two years of study.

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Olmsted County Public Health Services Advisory Board member Stephanie Heim said the work started with a series of discussions with county employees and community members and continued with eight community focus groups led by the Diversity Council.

“We wanted to get a sense of if our community members who participated in these BIPOC-led sessions, led by the Diversity Council, had different things to say,” she said, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

The study was spearheaded by nine members from the county’s Public Health Services Advisory Board and Olmsted County Human Rights Commission , as well as county staff. The subgroup of the two volunteer boards met 39 times for a combined 774 hours to finalize the recommendations presented Tuesday.

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While commissioners sought the study two years ago as disparities were being seen in the wake of the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, members of the study’s subgroup pointed out that health impacts go beyond access to medical care.

“Health is so much more than just the care we received at the doctor’s office,” said subgroup member Grace Pesch, pointing to the county’s health rankings model, which indicates social and economic factors can influence 40% of health outcomes.

With that in mind, the group established nine areas for their recommendations. They are:

  • Accountability, which calls for ensuring community communication regarding work being done. 
  • Advisory boards, which seeks to support practices for more diverse membership. 
  • Criminal Justice, which aims to remove barriers to people in crisis and increase staff training in de-escalation practice. 
  • Customer service, which seeks to respond to the voice of county customers and recipients of service. 
  • Data collection and use, which aims to maximize and streamline county data systems. 
  • Organizational culture, which seeks to create a welcoming community that values diversity. 
  • Financial health, which seeks to ensure and potentially increase financial assistance, as well as build strategies for independence. 
  • Housing and homelessness, which aims to invest resources to address homelessness, as well as reduce  home ownership disparity seen among BIPOC communities. 
  • Mental health and substance abuse, which aims to promote strategies to reduce stigma and barriers in BIPOC communities. 

Recommendations included finding new ways to engage members of the BIPOC community and ensuring they can overcome potential barriers to county services that could affect their health outcomes, as well as continuing to assess community needs.
Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said the commissioners' acceptance of the report will spur work toward addressing the 42 recommendations, with plans to develop an implementation plan by the end of the year.

She said staffing is available to do the work, and work on some recommendations could start immediately, while other efforts might require more study.

Kiscaden said some recommended work, including looking at equity in the criminal justice system and addressing housing disparities, are already being addressed by groups that include county commissioners.

Welsch said those groups, as well as other committees led by county commissioners, will be key in providing oversight to the work, as well as ensuring efforts move forward.

Commissioner Matt Flynn estimated 90% of the recommendations presented in Tuesday’s report were part of similar efforts adopted by county commissioners two decades ago, which highlights the need to develop a plan.

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“Now is the time to take some action, rather than just talk,” he said.

Other commissioners agreed, pointing to a desire to address systemic racism and find ways to ensure all residents can achieve their full potential.

“I look forward to seeing where this will take us,” County Board Chairman Mark Their said.


What happened: Olmsted County commissioners accepted a report regarding race and racism as a public health issue.

Why does this matter: A two-year study identified recommendations designed to improve health outcomes and address racial inequities.

What's next: County staff will develop a plan for implementing the recommendations in the report.


The Joint Study of Race and Racism as a Public Health Issue Final Report by randy on Scribd

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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