In case you missed it, Howard County recently celebrated a huge achievement – we were ranked 8th in the nation in the U.S. News and World Report’s Healthiest Communities report. As Howard County’s community health foundation and the largest independent health philanthropy in the state of Maryland, we were thrilled by this news. It reflects so much hard work by our elected officials, community organizations, local hospital and residents to make excellence in public health a priority.
Not surprisingly, we ranked high in categories for social determinants of health like higher education and a good economy. We have also worked diligently to ensure our residents have access to insurance, and we have helped influence the reduction of risky behaviors like smoking and sugary drink consumption. However, despite some progress, one area where we still have a long way to go is health equity.
Racial health disparities are evident in Howard County in numerous areas, such as access to care, chronic disease, advance care planning and behavioral health treatment. For example, heart disease is a leading cause of death in Howard County—killing Black residents at a rate higher than for any other race. Pregnant Black and Latina women are two times more likely to receive late or no prenatal care compared to White pregnant women. Young Latina women are most at risk of depression and planning a suicide, and Black patients are more likely than others to land in the emergency room for mental health or substance use. And, we’ve all witnessed over the past year how COVID-19 has placed a disproportionate disease, death and financial burden on people of color.
As a health foundation, we recognize that these disparities are a result of inequitable health care – but also that things like access to safe housing, income and wealth gaps, environmental harm factors and barriers to education can, and often do, exacerbate health problems and effect overall mental and physical well-being, especially in communities of color. That’s why we must rebuild community structures and systems so they are rooted in equity, equality and fairness. It’s the only way we make individuals and families, and our community and our county, stronger, healthier and better.
This challenge requires several different strategies to move forward – including advocating for bold policy changes, elevating the voices of leaders of communities of color, educating the public (and ourselves) and building the up the resources of community organizations to advance social change. One of the key avenues we’re using to move the needle is through the Howard County Equity Collaborative, currently comprised of the Horizon Foundation, the African American Community Roundtable, Association of Community Services of Howard County, Equity4HC and the Howard County Chinese School.
Beginning in 2019, the Foundation provided grant funding to establish the Collaborative and provide them with intensive racial equity training, coaching and organizational development to help them better advance equity and fight systemic racism in Howard County. Over the past two years, we collectively learned how to build trust and authentic relationships to work towards a common goal. And as a funder, it was important for us to go through this process alongside these community organizations to invest in them and engage with them as true partners.
While the growth and learning we all experienced could be uncomfortable and even painful at times, the results have been incredibly rewarding. The organizations are not only better trained to advocate for policy change in particular areas of interest to them, but they also show up for each other to tackle broader issues for the good of our community. Last summer, for example, the Collaborative came together to successfully make changes to the Howard County School System’s Educational Equity Policy 1080. The included amendments were a great first step to eliminating barriers that prevent children of color from achieving their full potential (including access to educational opportunity, good health and other determinants of well-being). Several of the groups also recently joined us to present at the Grantmakers in Health conference about building these relationships to achieve the big-picture goals we all want to see.
We are so proud of the work that the Collaborative has done thus far, but much work still remains for all of us. The Foundation is planning to launch a new cohort of equity grantees that will focus on building the capacity of organizations to focus on policy change, as well as other new opportunities for community groups to get involved. We will also be conducting community listening sessions as well as partnering with the Howard County Library System to host events – including this recent conversation with Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones – about health equity and how community members can take action. The Foundation also applauds the Howard County Council’s move to establish the first-ever Racial Equity Task Force to explore solutions that can close racial disparities in Howard County; we expect final recommendations on this soon that should help provide a road map of policy issues critical to the community.
Whether in witnessing the past year of protests over racial justice or our own work in the Howard County Equity Collaborative, we’ve learned that the only way to advance racial equity in our communities is if we work together to demand systemic change. We must all double down on our work to make good health and well-being achievable for all. We are all a part of this journey. Let’s move forward together, Howard County – for health, wellness and equity.
Kenitra Fokwa is a senior program officer at the Foundation, running our racial equity and grantmaking portfolios.