They separated so I live with my mom
My skin is brown, but it’s in between
“I’m too dark for them to be sure
My hair too frizzy,
My lack of another parent preventing them from knowing which genes mixed...
“So mustering up their courage
they ask the question everyone does:
are you adopted?”
These are a few of the lines eighth-grader Bela Doumbia shared from her poem “The Question” at the Feb. 11 Board of Commissioners meeting — where commissioners formally acknowledged Black History and Future Month and celebrated local Black excellence and the rich history of Black Americans.
Doumbia’s poem about what she experienced because of her skin color exemplifies this year’s Black History Month theme: “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.”
Doumbia was joined by a host of other presenters, including Sharon Gary-Smith, president of the Portland NAACP. At the virtual presentation, Gary-Smith highlighted the devastating impacts of systemic racism, which are rooted in the very foundation of the state of Oregon and persist today.
“Today in the 21st century, the forces of racial intolerance and hatred are still in bloom and continue to ravage Black and other communities of color,” Gary-Smith said.
“Our NAACP, with new Black women leadership, will continue to step up and speak up, whether the forces are educational inequity, workforce marginalization, over-policing of our communities, continued displacement of BIPOC residents to make way for gentrification, poor health access, and now the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The guests were joined by County employees who lead critical work in the community. Tameka Brazile, director of Chronic Disease Prevention & Health Promotion, said, “Throughout Black history, factors such as slavery, inequality, and structural racism exacerbating poverty in our communities have put pressure on maintaining family the family ties, when a better life unfortunately meant traveling far from home and away from loved ones.’’
“The Black community has and still exhibits an unwavering understanding and value of family as a comfort second to none.” she said.
Brazile said health and health disparities are central to the Black family experience. Those disparities are rooted in historic and current inequities in health care, employment, chronic stress and the built environment.
“Culture affects perceptions of health, illness and death, beliefs about causes of diseases, approaches to health promotion, how illness and pain are expressed and experienced, where patients seek help, how they seek help, and the type of treatments that are preferred.”
REACH Program Manager Charlene McGee underscored Multnomah County’s racial health disparities and her program’s critical work to culturally tailor its strategies and include community-based participatory and evidence-based approaches. The REACH program meshes public health with community voice and resiliency.
Recently, REACH launched its COVID Safe Portland Strong campaign with the city of Portland. It focused on the compounded impacts of racism and COVID by centering the experiences of Black women and femmes. REACH also launched free COVID testing and flu shots at Portland Community College’s Cascade campus, focused on Black and Indigenous communities.
McGee also described how REACH staff, on Jan. 8, held their inaugural “REACHING US” culturally specific virtual disease education series.
“We had over 200 community members who joined. We had a DJ, we had community members who shared their experience surviving and are living with the impact of COVID-19. We also have medical professionals sharing factual information,” McGee said.
But there’s still a lot more work to be done.
Next year Multnomah County will work with the City of Portland and Living Labs to pilot the prescribe a bike program for Black Portlanders.
The program aims to increase physical activity in Black Portlanders, who experience higher levels of chronic disease such as hypertension, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
“Promoting physical activity like biking and walking is a key component of the program’s federal grant,” McGee said. “That partnership will involve our County health center partners and will be based at the Northeast Health Center as well as La Clinica.”
Chair Deborah Kafoury joined the Board in thanking presenters for their continued work in dismantling racial inequities and promoting Black excellence.
“REACH has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. The staff have been integral in getting information out to the community about how to stay safe, what resources are available and how to access them, giving information about vaccines and so much more,” Chair Kafoury said.
“Black Americans have never had the luxury to take a break from confronting race and neither should the rest of us… For me, Black History Month is a time of reflection, of action, of connection and of learning.
“And I’m committed to continuing that growth for myself and in my position as the Chair of Multnomah County. Because while the landscape of our country and culture has changed so much in some ways, it has, unfortunately, not so much in others. We have to do what we can locally to lead with race.”