Hundreds of Black State Legislators from across the nation met in Indianapolis, Indiana last week for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) 41st Annual Conference to discuss and pass important policy resolutions on Sickle Cell Disease; Racial Disparities in School Disciplining Practices; Legislative Solutions to Address Minority Health Issues; and other areas of concern to African Americans.
“Legislators can prioritize the policy resolutions based on the needs of their constituents and work to have the topics adopted in their home states,” said Gregory W. Porter, the President of the NBCSL. “In addition to the policy resolutions, conference attendees heard presentations from Joe Hogsett, the Mayor of Indianapolis; Indiana Governor Eric. W. Holcomb; and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams who spoke about a number of health concerns including the Opioid Crisis,” said Porter.
The Opioid Crisis is ravaging America taking lives and costing the nation billions of dollars each year and has recently been called a National Emergency even though it has been an emergency in African American communities for decades. Black legislators have the challenge of making sure that when policies are implemented and funding allocated to fight the Opioid Crisis is available, everything is done in an equitable manner. “What I don’t want to see is inequitable distribution of funding to address the Opioid problem,” said Surgeon General Adams. “We also need to talk to law enforcement and others in the community who can help us mitigate the Opioid problem.”
The Surgeon General also told the legislators that he was confident if medical researchers worked hard, a cure will be developed for Sickle Cell Disease. He questioned who was going to pay for the cure and who would be able to afford the new drug. Dr. Adams told the legislators that when it comes down to taking care of patients medically and the citizens of our country….we all have to be non-partisan. “We all have to be committed to achieving Better Health Through Better Partnerships and thinking out of the box,” said Dr. Adams.
“We have to put aside the run of the mill thinking and creatively work together to find solutions that will yield positive outcomes.” The Surgeon General told the legislators we must focus on wellness and prevention programs so people can live healthy lives and stressed that we can’t TREAT our way out of heart disease, infant mortality, diabetes, cancer and other diseases. He added that he will soon be releasing a signature report on Health and the Economy.
One of the most important sessions held at the NBCSL conference was the Youth Congress which enabled young people from Indianapolis area high schools to gain a much better understanding of how government operates by role playing as House representatives and Senators.
“I believe helping our youth by encouraging them to eventually run for political office is a part of our job as state legislators” said Indiana Representative Robin Shackleford. “They are our future and if we don’t teach them about politics and government, who will?” In addition to Representative Shackleford, Senators Greg Taylor and Eddie Melton helped organize and manage the Youth Congress.
NBCSL held a Town Hall meeting on ending Mass Incarceration and the legislators viewed the highly acclaimed documentary 13th. The film punctuated the fact that the judicial system has been designed to incarcerate young men of color particularly, young black men and it goes back over 50 years. The question state legislators grapple with is how to help to reverse the cycle? There isn’t one answer because the mass incarceration issue is so complex and will have to be confronted at the national, state, and local levels and include law enforcement, community groups, and the judicial system.
Paula Hoisington, Vice Chair of the Corporate Roundtable, served on the panel assembled to discuss mass incarceration. “If a child young black boy is reading below the third grade level while in the third grade, predictions are that he will eventually end up in prison,” said Hoisington.
“We, as a community, need to build better foundations for our children, particularly young black men. They must see and have black male role models.” S. Lee Merritt is a civil rights attorney based in Philadelphia and also participated on the panel and said job training and ensuring returning citizens have job skills and ongoing counseling is paramount.
“Mass incarceration is a problem that must be addressed otherwise we become a part of the problem due to inaction,” said Merritt.
At the Annual Awards Ceremony on Saturday evening, Susan Burton, a criminal justice and prison reform advocate; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, ESQ., Human Rights Attorney and Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; and S. Lee Merritt, ESQ., Attorney and Social Activist, all were National Recipients of NBCSL’s Nation Builder Award.
Roland Parrish, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist (Texas); Tanya Walton Pratt, Attorney and Federal Judge (Indiana); Eugene White, Ed.D (Indiana); and Rani G. Whitfield, M.D. (Louisiana) were all State Recipients of the National Builder Award and recognized for their dedication to serving the community and making a difference in the lives of thousands of people.
Next year, the 2018 NBCSL Annual Conference will be held in Brooklyn, New York.