38 religious congregations to demand Gov. Ned Lamont declare racism a public health crisis in Connecticut

Rebecca Lurye, Hartford Courant

Before leading midday prayers over Zoom on the last Sunday in May, Rev. Tracy Johnson-Russell took a moment to talk about George Floyd, whose death a few days earlier had left Black Americans like her congregants reeling.

St. Monica’s Episcopal Church of Hartford was already fighting several social justice campaigns as part of a year-old, faith-based coalition called the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. But on that day, after nearly a week of mass demonstrations and protests around the country, a centenarian on the Zoom call said she no longer felt like things were going to change in her lifetime.

Johnson-Russell, a rector at the North End church, recalled the tough service this week as the alliance of 38 religious congregations plans to demand Gov. Ned Lamont declare racism a public health crisis in Connecticut.

“She’s been dealing with this issue of race and people being killed for the color of their skin for 100 years and what does that say about us as a country?” Johnson-Russell said. “What does it say about us living here in the state where we don’t see that all of us are important? No one life is more important than another and we need to do all we can collectively to right that wrong.”

More than 700 congregation members and at least 17 state lawmakers plan to meet virtually Thursday evening to argue for a legislative agenda that addresses racial inequities in housing, education, public safety and health for people of color in Connecticut and Black residents in particular.

It’s the alliance’s largest initiative since it was formed by the congregations and the Center for Leadership and Justice last October.

Several Connecticut cities and towns have already proclaimed racism as a public health crisis, including Bloomfield, Hartford, Simsbury and Windsor. As of June, at least 20 U.S. cities and three states, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, had done so according to Pew.

Pastor AJ Johnson, of Urban Hope Refuge Church in Hartford, said he wants Lamont to go beyond a simple proclamation, which he sees as a symbolic gesture by some towns.

“We applaud them for taking an effort in light of George Floyd but at this point, that declaration needs to be followed with policy and an agenda for Black Americans in this state,” he said.

The alliance represents a broad cross-section of the state with 38 faith-based congregations and groups in dense cities, more affluent suburbs and small towns. They think the governor’s support would get more communities on board with issues like police reform and the concentration of poverty in Connecticut cities.

“When someone can’t take their (housing) voucher and move to Glastonbury because there’s no affordable housing or there’s ridiculous hoops to jump through, we have racism in our state," Johnson said. "Why is that acceptable? Why is it no other town wants to take on this responsibility that Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury take on?”

“We don’t see any leadership on this particular issue,” he added.

More than a declaration, they want Lamont to establish a new framework for addressing issues facing people of color, and in particular Black people.

That say that could include bringing back the state’s African-American Affairs Commission, which was wrapped into the new Commission on Equity and Opportunity in 2016.

The alliance suggests a new name that’s more inclusive of the African diaspora: the Permanent Commission on Black American Affairs.

An 11-page legislative agenda the alliance created in June raises about 45 other efforts Lamont could take up, such as regionalizing school systems to addressing exclusionary zoning that prevents affordable housing from being built in some Connecticut towns.

Some items have gotten significant attention around the country this year, including reforming laws and policies on police use of force, requiring more anti-racism training for public safety officers.

Others are tied to concerns around the coronavirus, as the pandemic barrels on with its second wave.

The group wants Lamont to consider intensifying testing for COVID-19 and virus antibodies in areas most seriously impacted, including Black communities, and to collect data that allows for assessments of any connections between neighborhood conditions and how sick people became or how easily the virus spread.

“I think it’s about the leadership of our state acknowledging this is reality for Black people in this state and say, 'Yes, I want to work with you and work with the legislature to really address these issues,” Johnson-Russell said.

Rebecca Lurye can be reached at rlurye@courant.com.

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