October 6, 2021

Council Considering Forming a Task Force On Structural Racism

By Anne Levin

At its September 27 meeting, Princeton Council was asked to consider establishing a task force to help address racism as a public health crisis. Princeton Board of Health member Darrell Penn, who chairs a committee on the subject, made the request during a brief presentation.

“The resolution asks that you consider setting up a task force that would be empowered to really bring community stakeholders together in order to tackle what is a very significant and complicated issue,” he said. “The second piece is to focus on structural systemic racism.”

Council members responded to Penn’s report with enthusiasm. There were some suggestions, including one that urged including an honorarium for those who participate, and another urging the subcommittee to make sure its efforts don’t duplicate the work on any other boards or commissions. Penn is currently working with Council President Leticia Fraga and Councilmember Dwaine Williamson to incorporate some of those suggestions, and put together a measure to be considered at a future meeting.

“This all stems back to the death of George Floyd,” Penn said in a phone conversation this week. “Soon after that, Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, and that spoke to us on the Board of Health in a very meaningful way. We wanted to respond in kind.”

The Board of Health’s committee on structural racism was formed at the beginning of this year. Penn and colleagues had an earlier idea for a resolution, but decided against it. “We wanted to move beyond something that was just a declaration,” he said. “We wanted something action-oriented. We went through a bit of a journey as a committee. We wanted to respond to what Council had already done with its resolution. Our original thinking was to look at public health issues related to racism. We ultimately decided to really stay true to what Council had defined, and focus on racism as a public health issue.”

The task force’s emphasis should be on structural racism “because it affects everybody,” said Penn. “It’s not just outright racism. Structural racism is the kind that hides behind policies, practices, and cultural representations. And those

components are what we need to reconstruct in order to make meaningful headway.”

The committee hopes Council will appropriate some personnel and initial resources to set up a task force. “We want to start to pull different interests together, and then start to act in a way that allows for broader community engagement,” said Penn.

Responding to concerns voiced by a Council member that efforts of the subcommittee do not duplicate the work of other boards of committees, Penn said the issue is so large that it affects everyone. “There’s an element of race that plays into all of those things,” he said. “The goal is to bring everybody together to act collectively.”

Addressing structural racism is an all-encompassing challenge. “This is a tough, tough topic,” Penn said. “It’s something that divides families and friends. I do think there is an opportunity for Princeton. There is super leadership here, but I think it comes with intention. We may get the words wrong sometimes, but if we’re all acting with intention, and a willingness to listen to everyone in the community, and everyone in the community is part of the solution, then we can do well. This is not just meant to be for people of color. It’s all-inclusive.”