Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson seizes moment, using Health Department restructuring to advance programs to address racism, crime

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Mayor Frank Jackson envisions his “top-down” restructuring of the city’s Department of Public Health accomplishing more than just addressing complaints about unfair treatment workers.

In an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, Jackson said he aims to refocus the department to address underlying health issues that are caused by racism and can lead to crime.

“It gives a mission to the Health Department that’s not traditional,” Jackson said. “It falls within my philosophy of how to govern. … Governing means doing something.”

Doing something, in this case, also includes aligning the department with Cleveland’s 22 recreation centers, which Jackson wants to become resource centers that help families connect to social and health services.

All this might have happened anyway, Jackson said. But he sped up the process after an investigation into the department’s operations revealed leadership issues, poor morale, and a negative environment.

The shakeup included moving the department under the control of the Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunities for Youth and Young Adults, headed by Chief Tracy Martin-Thompson.

Jackson also reassigned the department’s director, Merle Gordon, initiated possible discipline for two managers, and recommended steps to improve moral and build a team atmosphere.

Conceived initially to address youth issues, the scope of the Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunities for Youth and Young Adults, has increased since its formation in 2016.

“Hurt children tend to come from hurt families,” Martin-Thompson told cleveland.com. “If we don’t focus on adults, too, we’re missing an opportunity.”

The office also oversees the Department of Community Relations Department, which builds relationships between residents, businesses, organizations, faith-based institutions and police.

And the office coordinates counseling for youth who display signs of stress from trauma. Those stresses have been linked to changes in youth that can spark violent behavior.

With the Health Department tied in, the office will be able to more effectively direct services that address health issues.

The array of services is broad, including immunizations, AIDS/HIV screenings, tuberculosis testing, lead screening, efforts to reduce infant mortality, and healthy living programs.

The idea is that by improving the health of the community — alleviating issues such as “toxic” stress caused by trauma or racism, particularly in young people.

Among the first steps will be the hiring of a consultant to look at all the Health Department operations and policies and to make recommendations for improvement. That consultant will work directly with Martin-Thompson.

Jackson praised the department’s work through the coronavirus pandemic.

“They did a pretty good job on the pandemic. They had a pretty good handle on that, he said.

That momentum needs to continue as the administration seeks to “develop a new dynamic and culture and tradition” in the department, he said.

“I’m trying to stay focused on getting something done as we move forward,” Jackson said. “We’ll let outcomes define our efforts.”

Eventually Jackson envisions a point person in health who will focus specifically on addressing issues from institutional racism – such as those caused by poverty and a lack of access to health care.

In the meantime, the counseling programs established a year ago in the rec centers to identify and help victims of toxic stress will continue. Jackson expects one person will work in tandem with the Recreation Department and the Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunities to coordinate that work.

And training for recreation staff will increase, with pay bumps for people who obtain national certifications in recreation programming. The hope is to provide program consistency through all of Cleveland’s 22 recreation centers.

“We’ll be creating a pipeline for future leaders [in the department],” Martin-Thompson said.

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