February is Black History Month, an opportunity to celebrate the vast contributions Black Americans have made throughout our country’s history, and are continuing to make today. In that spirit, we are highlighting a leader of today who is making a difference for the health of people in western New York.
Marie Cannon is Commissioner of the Erie County Department of Social Services. She also is co-chair of Live Well Erie, an Erie County initiative that aims to give every resident the opportunity to achieve their full potential by addressing the social determinants of health. Marie is a graduate of Cohort 5 of the Health Foundation’s Health Leadership Fellows program, and was a team advisor for Cohort 9. She recently shared her thoughts with us on the significance of Black History Month, and how we can carry that sentiment forward year-round.
“Black History Month is about celebrating and honoring the legacy of African-Americans and our contributions to every single aspect of this country—there is no part of our lives and history that African-Americans have not had an impact on,” said Marie. “It’s an opportunity to highlight that in the face of so many struggles—from enslavement to Jim Crow to the structural racism and disparities we still see today—that African-Americans continue to make valuable contributions to American culture. We are not only in this country, we are a part of this country.”
Marie believes that supporting the next generation of Black leaders means building a community that provides more equitable opportunities, from birth through adulthood.
“We need to think of it as a long-term plan. It starts before birth, by giving mothers access to good prenatal care, and addressing the huge disparities faced by African-American mothers and their babies. It means having access to quality, affordable childcare, because we know that the most critical stage of child development happens before age five. It must include quality schools, and affordable college or trade school. This is how we build a foundation for our children,” she said. “Providing mentoring opportunities and paid internships are so important—because many young people don’t have the privilege of being able to start their careers doing unpaid work.”
“We must ensure we are intentional about giving children the opportunity to see leaders in a variety of fields who look like them,” she said, offering as an example Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the National Institutes of Health researcher who played an integral role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Marie hopes the spirit of Black History Month—and the important conversations around the racial reckoning that happened in 2020—will continue beyond this month.
“I am hopeful that we will continue the momentum we saw this year, and build on it. We have to be courageous and bold; to not only say that we are anti-racist but also recognize how we are upholding racist systems in our lives—to own it, face it and move forward to change it,” she said. “Whatever we work on has to focus on inclusion, but more importantly, equity. Our success as a community and a country will depend on what we do with this moment.”