Recognizing Racism as a Public Health Crisis - A Statement from Camp Dreamcatcher

Systemic racism refers to the systems in place that create and maintain racial inequality in every facet of life for people of color.  Racial disparities are prevalent in our public health systems and result in Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) being impacted by HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 disproportionately when compared to Whites.  The numbers are staggering.  According to the CDC, “In 2018, Blacks accounted for 13% of the U.S. population, but 42% of the 37,832 new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.”  And with COVID-19, Blacks constitute nearly 13% of the U.S. population but made up 23% of all COVID-19 deaths as of June 3, according to the CDC.  Each disease has specific underlying reasons and conditions related to systemic racism that lead to these disparities, and the common reasons include a lack or limited access to high quality healthcare, lack of health insurance, limited access to testing & treatment, underlying health conditions that impact the immune system and the stigma associated with the diseases.  The reality is that the color of a person’s skin directly influences their access to medications, treatment, healthcare, behavioral health counseling and support. The systems in place in our public health networks that maintain racial inequalities have led to new infections and deaths. It is a fact . . . racism is a root cause of this public health crisis directly affecting the health and well-being of minority populations.

Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed these disparities at a press conference when he said, “I see a similarity here because health disparities have always existed for the African American community, but here again, with this crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable this is.” Dr. Leana S. Wen, emergency physician and Baltimore Public Health Commissioner stated that, “These are interrelated crises – the crisis of racism and inequality that is now converging with the crisis of COVID-19.” These bright lights are exposing the disparities that have always existed.

We need to shift the focus of that light to the police brutalities that are injuring and killing our Black brothers and sisters.  Police brutality or police violence is legally defined as a civil rights violation where officers exercise undue or excessive force against a subject. This includes, but is not limited to, physical or verbal harassment, mental injury, property damage, and death. Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as White Americans to be killed by police officers. This is a Public Health Emergency.

Camp Dreamcatcher’s Legacy and Promise

Camp Dreamcatcher condemns these senseless acts of violence. Of the 5,600 children and teens we have served over the past twenty-four years, 94% are Black and Brown skinned, and we stand in solidarity with them. We offer a safe haven free from the threat of violence – a place where boys and girls can feel protected and loved unconditionally in what many call their second home. I am proud of the boundary-breaking bonds created between campers and volunteers – bonds that go beyond the color of their skins and become connections of the heart.

I have been working as an advocate and therapist in the HIV/AIDS community for the past forty years.  In 1996, I had the dream of creating a therapeutic community for children coping with HIV/AIDS, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of thousands of volunteers, that dream became a reality. I never would have imagined that the number of youth in need of our programs would continue to increase twenty-four years after our inception. The racial disparities and inequalities related to access to healthcare mentioned above is one of the reasons that our numbers continue to increase each year.

Our Circle of Love creates a safe space where children and teens can process their grief related to those they have lost and to the trauma and fear they have experienced in their own lives due to the color of their skin.  I have held countless numbers of children in my arms as they processed their grief and described their fears about living in their own homes and communities, due to racial profiling and the threat of police violence.  These risks are real and unpredictable, and this life-long racial trauma can lead to increased risks for anxiety, depression and PTSD. The fact that videos and images of brutality and murders are just one click away on your phone can lead to vicarious trauma – the psychological impact of second-hand exposure to traumatic events.

At Camp Dreamcatcher, we ask the children how they are feeling and what they need. One of our former campers, James, said this when asked by friends how they could support him:

“Now is the time for my caring friends to do what they can to help fight racism and racial biases in themselves, their families and their country.  The thing about being a minority is that we’ve become resilient to hardship we have had to deal with the short end of the stick for so long that it’s mundane anymore.  We for the most part go through our days waiting for what next society will throw our way and whether or not us and ours will survive.  Am I ok?  I am angry.  I am hurt, but mostly I am tired, and I will fight on regardless.”

What I have experienced at Camp Dreamcatcher is the healing power of community and the resiliency that enables James to “fight on regardless.” We must hold each other up when one of us is tired, especially now when the social distancing brought about by COVID-19 can lead to a feeling of powerlessness and isolation.  The horrific murder of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans has thrust people together with the common goal of protesting police brutality. A recent poll found that 54% of Americans approve of these protests.  Community and connections create hope and change.  Bryan Stevenson, African American human rights attorney, social justice advocate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said this about hopelessness: “Hopelessness is the enemy of Justice.  Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” 

I stand beside James. It is time for all of us to stand beside him, and to ask what we can do to support BIPOC in our own communities.  Reach out to your neighbors, co-workers, family members, church members; check in on them, ask them how they are doing and what you can do to support them.  Ask, listen and respond with love and acts of kindness. Get involved and make a difference. As we do this, please do not judge others for how they are getting involved.  Whether this means joining a protest, signing a petition, volunteering, reaching out to someone in need – find your own way.   

Moving Forward

On a personal level, I will continue to look within myself and explore how I am contributing to the ongoing racial disparities due to my own biases.  I will not remain silent in the face of racial inequity.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is an organizational priority. We will continue to listen and respond to the needs of the children, teens and families served by our programs.

Action Steps Moving Forward:

  • The creation of a Diversity & Inclusion Task Force comprised of a diverse team of volunteers and staff members.
  • Engage all staff and stakeholders in conversations about diversity and inclusion.
  • Review and update policies, processes, systems, and trainings to promote values of inclusivity and mutual respect and to encourage acceptance and the celebration of differences. 
  • Update the HIV/AIDS & Diversity Counselor Training to include components on racism, systemic racism and White privilege.
  • Expand therapeutic opportunities for youth to discuss and process racial trauma. 

Here are some of the books I and the Camp Dreamcatcher staff will be reading to further educate ourselves, and we invite you to read with us: 

Patty Hillkirk
Executive Director
Camp Dreamcatcher
148 W. State Street
Suite 104
Kennett Square, PA 19348