Liberation, equal access, and community health: RHHD celebrates Juneteenth 

Wednesday, June 19, marks the fourth federal observance of Juneteenth. Even before President Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, the day was a meaningful opportunity to reflect on a national history of enslavement and to celebrate emancipation—the news of which reached enslaved people in Texas in 1865, almost two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Health and well-being are important parts of modern Juneteenth celebrations. One advocate for a federal holiday was the Reverend Ronald V. Myers; in addition to his work in Washington, he was a practicing family doctor who worked to prevent infant mortality and chronic illness in rural Mississippi. This year at RHHD, we honor Dr. Myers’s legacy as our staff continues to link public health with freedom, equality, and justice. Here are a few of their reflections and calls to action:

Lorraine Wright, Violence Prevention Manager 

Access is one of the most important components of public health. If enslaved Texans had learned about the declaration of their freedom in 1863, Union soldiers would not have needed to make the trip to Galveston almost two-and-a half-years later. It’s not just that enslaved people didn’t know they were free—there was intentional withholding of information in order to maintain an exploited labor force of more than 250,000 enslaved people.

On Juneteenth, I encourage us to dig deeper and ask some important questions: How often are we the keepers of information, not because we are deserving of it, or even earned it, but just because we happened to have access to it? How often do we fail to share that information with others—intentionally or otherwise—even if we know it could support someone else on their road to liberation? Let us strive to learn Juneteenth’s critical lessons about access. My call to action is always going to be the same: you’ve got to leverage your sphere of influence. Together, we can create pathways to liberating resources like safe and permanent housing, addiction support, culturally relevant and engaging education, and empowering health information. That’s what it means to be public health!

Charelle Carr, Henrico Community Health Worker (CHW) 

Juneteenth reminds us that people spent years not knowing they were free. Knowledge and information help you make choices about where you’re headed next, and that’s a freedom. I tie that idea into public health a lot. There are resources and services out here that people don’t know about that could really help them, like VDH’s car seat programWIC support for expectant parents and little ones, or immunization appointments. When I was a young, single mother, I wanted my son (who is now a recent college graduate!) to have all the opportunities to make good decisions and be the best. So I know it can be hard to know where to find things that will enhance your child’s education on health.

Now it’s my job to bring these resources into communities! CHWs are the link between our different programs. We are in the community, we know the resources, or if we don’t have them yet, we know how to find them.

You can come meet the Henrico CHWs at our table during the Dorey Park Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 15. It’s going to be a great, family-oriented event. Being together and celebrating our African American communities reminds us that our ancestors had liberation—and we take that and move it forward. Stop by, say hello, and take a look at the resources we have to share!

Shaleetta Drawbaugh, Health Equity Fund Program Officer 

Juneteenth is a monumental event that asks us to hold in tension celebration, struggle, and hope. It is a reminder that we are not free until everyone is free!

Systemic racism, discrimination, and historical disenfranchisement continue to present threats to public health. I work with the Health Equity Fund (HEF), which invests in community led-projects that are filling gaps to improve health in communities experiencing deep disparities and the longstanding impacts of racism.

The HEF is accepting funding applications through June 23. Any community leader, program, or collaborative should feel empowered to apply! If you’re a small, grassroots, or fledgling organization—especially if you’ve experienced rejection—we hope you’re inspired to never give up. Be courageous and submit a HEF application to access critical, gap-filling funds. Funding can sustain your transformative work to eliminate health disparities. We want to partner with organizations and people undertaking transformative work to eliminate health disparities. Your efforts are seen and they matter!

Jasmine Carmichael, Community Health Assessment Coordinator  

To me, Juneteenth is a day to celebrate progress, change, and justice. I take this day to reflect on how we have flourished and prospered since the effective end of slavery. We have accomplished so much despite many societal challenges, and it’s really important to celebrate that!

In public health, Juneteenth presents an opportunity to hear the voices of those who have been impacted by systemic injustice and to consider the health disparities caused by those injustices. I view the Community Health Assessment (CHA) survey as one small step toward eradicating injustice. You can and should fill it out to express what you think should be improved in our communities. We take that feedback and create improvement plans to address those issues. That small step—rooted in careful listening—steers us toward confronting the bigger challenges in our communities.