Mar. 22—MANKATO — At his speaking engagements around the country, Yusef Salaam said he's encouraged by the conversations young people are having about social justice.
"To be part of those conversations gives me tremendous hope," he said. "It reminds me I should use the platform I have."
Salaam was one of the "Central Park Five," a group of boys — four of them Black and one Latino — who were unjustly imprisoned on charges related to a rape and attempted murder of a jogger in New York City in 1989.
Just 15 years old at the time, he and the other boys spent years in prison for a crime they didn't commit. DNA evidence later connected the crime to a convicted murderer and serial rapist who admitted to it, leading Salaam and the others — now known as the "Exonerated Five" — to have their convictions vacated in 2002.
Their story was dramatized in the 2019 Netflix series "When They See Us." Now 47 years old and an entrepreneur, author and public speaker, Salaam will provide the keynote address to kick off Minnesota State University's annual health summit Wednesday.
The Health and Biomedical Sciences Summit, held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has a health equity focus this year. Educational sessions scheduled throughout the day will examine social determinants of health.
The determinants can range from access to quality education and health care to what neighborhood you live in to your economic stability. It's the idea that the conditions and environments in which a person is born into or lives affect their health outcomes and quality of life.
The summit's organizers were intentional in wanting the event to have a social justice focus. Brooke Burk, an associate professor in MSU's recreation, parks and leisure services department, said they invited Salaam to keynote the summit before the pandemic happened, and then events over the past year brought social justice initiatives more to the forefront.
"I think the pandemic has brought to light and made more people aware of the importance of social justice when it comes to the health and well-being of people," she said.
The importance of the topic also factored into the decision to make the summit free to attend. Organizers only ask that attendees register in advance at ahn.mnsu.edu/2020-summit-social-determinants-of-health.
The connections between social determinants and health outcomes also help understand why racial health disparities have been so persistent countrywide, but especially in Minnesota. The state consistently ranks high in overall health measures compared to others, while also having some of the biggest disparities by race.
Social justice movements during the last year have highlighted those disparities, Salaam said, but there are still others who falsely claim they're the result of coincidences or oversights rather than society working the way it was designed.
"There's been this big push to believe that these things going on in society are anomalies," he said. "When you look at the communities of people pushed to the margins of society, you realize this is part of their norm. This is business as usual."
Improving social determinants of health isn't a fast process, especially when it's been overlooked for so long. It could involve ensuring healthy food is affordable, housing is stable and wages are livable.
George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's deaths at the hands of police last year set off demonstrations calling attention to society's inequities. For Salaam, he said his own experience with the justice system was a violent awakening to America's unequal reality.
"It informs my current work by me having my eyes wide open," he said. " ... My whole life is informed by my experience."
As examples of how race influences responses to health crises, he contrasted two drug epidemics. Drug use was heavily criminalized in the 1980s as part of President Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," leading police and the justice system to arrest and incarcerate Black men and other people of color at extremely disproportionate rates than their white peers.
Between 1980 to 1997, the number of people behind bars in the U.S. skyrocketed from 50,000 to 400,000, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
More recently, the country's opioid epidemic — largely afflicting white people — had a far different response. Addictions were more likely to be treated as a public health issue than criminal behavior.
The different responses, to Salaam, showcase one of the challenges in achieving greater health equity. If the people who make decisions and laws are comfortable enough with how things are going, or if they're not being impacted, change is going to be hard to achieve.
"I think the unfortunate reality is that some of them have to be affected," Salaam said.
Still, he struck an optimistic tone when talking about the potential for health and other inequities to improve. It goes back to those discussions he hears young people having at his events.
"The beautiful thing about it is in the future we then get the opportunity to begin the conversations that will heal the land," he said.
Salaam has a memoir, "Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice," coming out in May. His keynote address for MSU's summit will be from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola