Cuyahoga County ADAMHS Board puts "racism" back in health declaration after public backlash

ADAMHS board chair, Benjamin Gohlstin, led the move to change the board's racism declaration last fall. The board reversed course at Wednesday's meeting and voted to bring back the original declaration that racism is a public health crisis. [ ADAMHS Board]
ADAMHS board chair, Benjamin Gohlstin, led the move to change the board's racism declaration last fall. The board reversed course at Wednesday's meeting and voted to bring back the original declaration that racism is a public health crisis. [ADAMHS Board]

This story was produced in partnership with The Land for Ideastream’s Connecting the Dots Between Race and Health Project.

By Michael Indriolo

The Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County reversed course during a brief meeting on Wednesday and reinstated their original declaration stating "racism is a public health crisis."

After passing the original declaration a year ago, the ADAMHS board replaced the word “racism” with “discrimination” at a meeting last fall. The board chair, Rev. Benjamin Gohlstin of Cleveland’s Heritage Community Baptist Church in Hough, previously called the word racism divisive, saying that genetic differences between people with different skin colors don’t exist, and therefore, humans are all part of the same biological race. That amended resolution read, “Discrimination is a public health crisis.” 

The board, however, reversed course at the Wednesday meeting and without any discussion voted to re-add the word racism back into the resolution, scrapping the amended version altogether.

Just hours prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the board agenda had stated that the board would vote on an entirely different resolution, which read, “Racism, discrimination and bigotry are a behavioral health crisis,” but the board also scrapped that draft legislation. 

This reinstatement, which the ADAMHS Board unanimously approved, comes after The Land and Ideastream Public Media reported on the board’s decision to remove “racism” from its resolution. Some local equity experts and prominent social service agencies that receive funding from the board, including The Centers and the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, criticized the move. At the core of the controversy is what these linguistic changes within the resolution mean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the local behavioral health services field and the communities they serve. 

The decision to reinstate the resolution arose at the ADAMHS Board’s Committee of the Whole meeting last week, where Gohlstin shared harrowing encounters with racism and asked the board to reverse course. Gohlstin himself originated the request to remove the word “racism,” but has now had an apparent change of heart. 

Gohlstin said he had “scars on his soul” from facing racism, and that the pushback on his request to remove the word racism made him consider resigning from the board after 22 years. 

Scott Osiecki, the board’s chief executive, previously said that the board remains committed to equity regardless of the resolution. The board hired a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant last fall, and it has hosted two dozen training sessions, drawing hundreds of participants, about racism since passing the original resolution in 2020. 

Yet critics argued that the board has a responsibility to declare racism a public health crisis because they act as a leader in the local social services sphere. This year, the board will dole out nearly $40 million in funding to more than 70 local social services agencies. 

“I think that the ADAMHS Board since they provide the funding, they should be the group that is spearheading this movement of dismantling racism and access for minorities in Cleveland,” said Dawn Pullin, who formerly served as the behavioral health and addictions director at the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition and attended ADAMHS Board meetings on the organization’s behalf. “With changing that wording, I don't believe that that's sending that message across the board.”

In 2020, the ADAMHS Board served 3,483 mental health clients. Of those, 42.3% were Black and over 48% were white. For services related to substance use disorders, the board served 2,756 clients, of whom 36.8% were Black and 58.8% were white. The county as a whole, meanwhile, has a population that is 30.5% Black and 63.5% white. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approaching racism as a public health crisis means recognizing that people face inequitable health outcomes as a result of their skin color. In Cuyahoga County, white residents are likely to live nearly six years longer than Black residents, according to the Center for Community Solutions. 

The ADAMHS Board isn’t alone in declaring racism a public health crisis. Nearly a dozen municipalities, including Cleveland City Council and Cuyahoga County Council, passed similar resolutions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. 

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.

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