Confronting Racism as a Public Health Crisis

Street protest sign with the message "Racism is a Pandemic"

Photo courtesy of Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

On July 20, 2020, the board of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) approved a resolution acknowledging that racism is a public health crisis facing Minnesota, and that the nonprofit sector has important role as part of a society-wide effort to dismantle systemic racism and address structural barriers to health and economic well-being in Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only elevated what has already been known, and vigorously declared by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC): that the fundamental elements needed to thrive – health, safety, economic security, the ability to influence the decision-making of institutions that impact one’s family and community – are not equally available to all.

Exclusionary and racist policy choices over the past century in areas including housing, education, and job opportunities; ongoing forms of discrimination and bias; and lack of public investment in communities of color, have created structural barriers leaving workers of color with lower average earnings, higher rates of unemployment, lower rates of health insurance coverage, and restricted avenues to build intergenerational wealth. The American Public Health Association (APHA) resolved in 2020 that “Racism is an ongoing public health crisis that needs our attention now,” and COVID-19 is now worsening the economic and health implications of racism.

Nonprofits cannot fulfill their missions in a racist society, cannot change the world alone, but can play a key role in building an equitable future.

Nonprofits have distinct charitable missions, and together we work toward building a healthy, cooperative, and just society. As long as racism is present, that world does not exist. Nonprofits alone can’t remake the world because that work requires the entire community. Nonprofits are in a position to advance policy changes needed to address systemic racism at all levels of government decision-making.  In Minnesota, the community’s trust of nonprofits ranks high, and the sector is an important nonpartisan forum to address needed changes.

As we work to address problems perpetuated by disparities and inequities of our society, nonprofits must recognize our own responsibility and history in relation to the current realities of structural racism. This includes ensuring nonprofits have the tools and resources to make changes within their own organizations and the sector to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion; and recognizing and learning from those leading the way in this work.

MCN’s response falls into three main areas:

  1. Advance public policy changes that counter systemic racism: identify current and past policy decisions that contribute to racial disparities; engage in advocacy and engagement campaigns to enact policy changes to make Minnesota a place where all can thrive; support nonprofits in their own advocacy work to advance racial equity; and center racial and ethnic equity and inclusion in the development of policy agendas.
  2. Recognize the leadership of BIPOC-led and serving nonprofits, and nonprofits advancing racial equity, and ensure they have the tools and resources they need to succeed: Develop strategic partnerships and authentic relationships with communities, policy and organizational leaders of color, and legislative allies; design events and resources that respond to the needs and priorities of these nonprofits, reduce barriers to MCN events and resources for these nonprofits; use MCN’s communications platforms to lift up the work of BIPOC organizations; and advocate for government policy, contracting philanthropic practices to allow these nonprofits equitable access to public and philanthropic dollars.
  3. Convene and equip the nonprofit sector to advance racial equity: Support the development of race conscious organizational practices and integration of race and race equity into leadership programs; provide training opportunities related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access/racial justice; disaggregate research data by race/ethnicity; spotlight productive work by nonprofits in regards to increase equity; and ensure MCN’s staff, board, membership and processes reflect Minnesota’s race/ethnicity.

Accountability in this work

MCN’s current strategic plans are informed by our 18-member governing board of directors, 2,200 nonprofit member organizations across the state of Minnesota, and staff members. The work to actualize MCN’s commitment to racial equity and measure progress requires prioritization and investment. MCN has built systems and invested in relationships to lay the groundwork for race conscious work and community input on MCN’s impact. MCN will use multiple open channels for feedback, idea generation, action plan development, and evaluation, including:

  • relationships with those most impacted by racism;
  • regular community surveys assessing the impact of MCN’s work;
  • an Equity and Justice committee of MCN staff that meets monthly;
  • an Equity and Justice committee of MCN’s board of directors; and
  • the development and implementation of an equity framework that inspires race conscious policies, practices, and procedures.