The Power of Introducing Racism as a Public Health Crisis Policies

by Jeanette Kowalik, PhD, MPH, MCHES

This is the first installment of the APHA HA Section–Public Health Management to Practice series. We will begin to discuss the significance of introducing racism as a public health crisis. Due to the nature of this topic, it will be delivered in three parts to capture the background of this work, application, and implications for pandemic response. Jeanette Kowalik is the former Commissioner of Health for the City of Milwaukee, and in the podcast below, she shares and reflects on being part of the first jurisdiction in the country to do this important and necessary work and apply it to the pandemic response.

APHA Past-President, Dr. Camara Jones declared racism as a public health crisis in 2016. Since then, the quest to make formal declarations was sluggish. A state affiliate crafted a resolution for the state of Wisconsin. In 2019, Milwaukee County’s Office of African American Affairs issued the first local level declaration in May of that year. This set the stage for the City of Milwaukee, the most diverse and segregated area in the country to make the declaration as a policy level intervention. At that time, city leadership collaborated on the declaration which included five action items to be accomplished within one year. The city’s Common Council and Mayor approved the declaration in July of 2019. 

The COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. Milwaukee was able to leverage its enhanced understanding of the role of racism and prioritized the need to understand how COVID-19 was impacting BIPOC residents. Within the first month of the pandemic response, Milwaukee was able to publicly show who was being most impacted by COVID-19, its Black community. Resources were limited. Local partners provided resources to slow the spread of COVID-19 in BIPOC neighborhoods. Milwaukee’s efforts in health equity also prompted other places to share their data on COVID-19 disparities to adjust prevention messaging and allocation of resources nationwide. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement expanded post the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others. Prior to this, only 14 local jurisdictions declared racism as a public health crisis. As of January 2021, over 150 jurisdictions have made the declaration.

Listen to the Podcast

In this 3-part podcast miniseries, current HA Section Chair, Dr. Michele McCay, and I discuss the significance of these declarations and what action can and should look like beyond words on paper.  

Podcast Host: Dr. Michele McCay. Music (Gameshow Brazz) by John Bartmann from Pixabay

Download the presentation “Racism Is a Public Health Crisis: Experiences from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”


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City of Milwaukee Steering and Rules Committee Hearing from July 2019 where the Racism as a Public Health Crisis was heard and approved.

Minute marks:

  • 25 mark- Alderman Donovan (from conservative, white, south side district) asks about institutions of racism
  • 29 mark- his response about the city
  • 31 mark- says city is a racist institution
  • 33 mark- Alderman Donovan says he doesn’t see racism
  • 37 mark- rehashes rigged game comment
  • 39 mark- President Hamilton, stand up exercise
  • 42 mark- Alderman Perez discussed Employee Resource Groups at DER

Note: Alderman Donovan voted for the measure in the end. 


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about the campaign launch — May 2020


You Matter Campaign – BIPOC COVID-19 outreach funded by a local foundation — Follow them on Twitter.

Learn More

APHA HA Section

About the Speakers

Dr. Michele McCay

Dr. Michele McCay is the American Public Health Association’s Health Administration Section Chair for 2020-2021. Dr. McCay’s work focuses on the diverse leadership, programming, and service issues affecting women, children, and families. Dr. McCay currently teaches full-time at DePaul University in the Department of Health Sciences.




Dr. Jeanette Kowalik

Dr. Jeanette Kowalik has 19 years of progressive public health experience representing the life course. She began her career as an intern at the City of Milwaukee Health Department in 2002; she returned in 2018 to serve as the Commissioner of Health until fall of 2020. Jeanette was drawn to public health, so she attended Northern Illinois University’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program while maintaining full-time employment in the field. Post completion of her MPH, Jeanette attended the Management Academy for Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; she began her doctorate in health sciences at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Milwaukee shortly thereafter. Her initial focus was infant mortality disparities among Black and Latinx adolescents; this shifted after she realized the significant gap in research regarding recruitment and retention of a diverse public health workforce. Jeanette completed her coursework and dissertation while working full time for the Wauwatosa Health Department, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, and the Chicago Department of Public Health. In the fall of 2014, Dr. Kowalik returned to Wisconsin to serve as UW-Madison’s Director of Prevention and Campus Health Initiatives. In 2016, she transitioned to the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP) in Washington, DC. Jeanette served as the Associate Director of Women’s and Infant Health at AMCHP, a professional membership organization for maternal and child health professionals nationwide. This role enabled Jeanette to focus on Social Determinants of Health, Health Equity, and Anti-racism work. Dr. Kowalik’s diverse set of experiences continues to motivate her to represent those who are unable to have a voice and advocate for equity through policy and practice change at all levels. The highlights of Dr. Kowalik’s public health career to date are Declaring Racism as a Public Health Crisis in July of 2019 and prioritizing the impact of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity in Milwaukee; this motivated other jurisdictions to do the same. In essence, data sharing enabled the country to see a disturbing pattern of COVID-19 incidence among BIPOC. This increased awareness led to recalibration of outreach strategies and resources to save lives. Dr. Kowalik returned to Washington DC in late 2020 to serve as the Director of Policy Development for the Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit, bi-partisan health policy organization.

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