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After employees complained, Colorado declares racism a public health crisis and will hire an ‘equity and inclusion officer’


It will become formal policy within the health department

Photo by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The state of Colorado plans to declare racism a public health crisis and hire more people of color into its health department, including an "equity and inclusion officer," the Denver Post reported Friday.

The move reportedly came following weeks of urging from employees at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, one of whom said they were "dumbfounded" that more hadn't been done already in response to protests over racial injustice.

"I like it when my employees push me on this issue to go faster and to use language they think is more descriptive," Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said, announcing the news.

Before this latest action, the department had opted only to publicly call racism "a persistent and critical health issue" in an open letter on its website. That wasn't enough for some of the department's employees.

According to the report:

Four employees of the health department — three of whom are staffers of color — told The Post that not only was the letter published weeks after employees first raised questions, but it minimized racism by calling it an "issue" rather than a "crisis." The latter, they said, more aptly reflects the urgency the agency should have in responding to inequalities that exist both inside the department and in the health of Coloradans.

One employee anonymously said: "I've just been kind of dumbfounded as someone who works for the agency. And just have been really underwhelmed with the stance that they've taken and have been really appalled by the fact that CDPHE remains silent about systemic racism."

Another employee, also anonymously, added: "It's just kind of a pattern internally of dragging our feet and not really addressing why we have't done anything. I would hope that everyone that works at CDPHE would recognize that systemic racism impacts our work and has for longer than the past month."

The pressure apparently worked, as now the department has taken more concrete action by declaring racism a public health crisis and making it formal policy within the department.

What exactly will it accomplish, though? Hunsaker Ryan told the outlet she has two goals:

To increase diversity in the department's workforce, which is almost 78% white, and make it easier for local community organizations that provide services to people of color to partner with the agency. She also plans to hire an equity and inclusion officer for the department, potentially by the end of August.

According to the American Public Health Association, a growing list of local officials in 19 states have also declared racism a public health crisis. But as of the end of July, Colorado joined one other state in making the declaration: Wisconsin.

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