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Black Mental Health Week Statement: Reflections on Black History Month, looking forward on Black health, and calls to action for systemic change

Black Mental Health Week: Calls to action for every month

Each year, Black History Month is a time to honour and learn about histories of Black people and communities, to recognize and learn from and celebrate Black leaders and their work, past and present, as well as artists, writers, academics, activists and others who’ve made significant contributions, and to look forward to futures where Black histories and leadership are central to a more equitable and just Ontario and Canada. It’s an opportunity to honour the ways in which Black histories, Black advocacy and Black leadership continue decades of efforts to make communities fairer and more just for all. It’s a moment to recognize, and hold onto, Black history as history, period. It’s a moment for those with white privilege to acknowledge, hold onto, and act on the imperative to do better, to contribute to dismantling structures of anti-Black racism, to see themselves in the work, and understand their role in these histories.

At the Alliance for Healthier Communities, Black History Month and Black Mental Health Week are key opportunities to recognize and create awareness of the leadership of Black health leaders and community partners and Alliance members who serve Black communities, in supporting Black health and health equity, and acknowledging the difficulty, challenges, and grief of this work during the pandemic. We acknowledge and lift up the milestones in the last year towards the collection of race-based and sociodemographic data in health care, continued leadership and advocacy on safer supply and harm reduction, and many different ways that Black community health leaders are supporting Black people and communities throughout the COVID-19 response.

This is the time to seize on the inequities created and perpetuated by systemic anti-Black racism and white supremacy, and to start difficult and necessary discussions and plan actions on how to sustainably support Black health throughout our province and country. It’s a time for organizations like ours, and the members we serve, to re-commit to change across the health care, justice, education and other institutions that continue to marginalize and create unsafe spaces and inequitable outcomes for Black people and families. This month we come together in support of real change that goes beyond the month of February.

The events of the past year must become turning points for Black health and wellbeing. The pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on Black people and communities have laid bare the price that’s paid by Black lives, Black workers, and Black communities while white supremacy and its structures remain, driving both decision-making and inaction that makes inequities worse. The actions, protests and calls for justice over the last year -- for George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Ahmaud Arbery, D’Andre Campbell and so many others whose deaths resulted from anti-Black racism and violence -- cannot be in vain. We need clear plans for action from all leaders who can impact systemic change. Black leaders have pointed the way for years to where action is needed; now is the time to take up their call for real change. Now is the time to make the commitment to listen to Black leaders, to see and support the paths they’ve shown for health, social supports and other systems, and to rally those around us to demand and act for real change.

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in the United States and mass protests against police violence and white supremacy, the Black Health Committee made up of Alliance members, along with the Black Health Alliance, and the Network for Advancement of Black Communities (NABC), released a statement that went to the heart of Black people’s experience of the violence of anti-Black racism and the history of it, rooted in words without actions, commitments without follow-throughs. We echo those calls to action now:

We stand with Black people everywhere in calling for faster action to meaningfully confront white supremacy and address anti-Black racism through:

  • Declaration of anti-Black racism as a public health crisis.
  • Enhanced accountability infrastructure to address police brutality, police violence and harms to Black communities.
  • A strengthened Anti-Racism Directorate with a clearly articulated, targeted and systemic anti-Black racism strategy.
  • A provincial commitment to the allocation of protected funds to provide culturally appropriate health and wellbeing support within Black communities. A critical component of undoing anti-Black racism is working towards making Black life livable. Culturally appropriate organizations must be given the support they need to continue providing these services. 

The Alliance’s member organizations are also committed to these actions, including declaring anti-Black racism a public health crisis, addressing harms linked to policing by reallocating funds from policing to Black communities, and a renewed Health Equity Charter. Collective action and responsibility and accountability, among everyone in Ontario and Canada, are the paths forward, and away from structures rooted in anti-Black racism and white supremacy.

As we reflect now on March 1, Black Mental Health Day, inaugurated last year by Black health leaders in Ontario, and expanded this year into a series events comprising Black Mental Health Week, including these happening virtually in Toronto, while there's also a program of events in based in Ottawa, led by the Black Mental Health Coalition.

This statement is just that – a statement, a collection of our words. During this time and beyond, we invite you to consider not just the words, but the actions, the organizational changes, the policy directions you can commit to in order to support sustainable change in your community and among its systems and structures. It’s why we wrote this statement: to point towards sustainable plans of action for all of us, within community health care, and throughout our societies. We all have roles to play in better, more equitable and just future for Black lives, the lives of Black youth, Black women, Black LGBTQ+ people, Black men and Black families and communities. Black Lives Matter is a movement and message we must all rally around. We honour the leaders showing us the way, and commit to supporting them with our actions.

Francis Garwe, Chair, Alliance Black Health Committee

Sarah Hobbs, CEO, Alliance for Healthier Communities

March 1, 2021