To battle the hate and violence that has gripped the nation, people and organizations must share their stories, acknowledge trauma, combat “fake news” and misinformation, and tell the truth about our history.

That was the message during today’s Closing General Session, “Moving Away From Hate — A Way Forward.” The session capped off APHA’s first all-virtual Annual Meeting, which welcomed 9,400 people.

Jose Ramon Fernandez-PenaBefore the session’s panel discussion, APHA’s outgoing president, Lisa Carlson, passed the virtual gavel to the Association’s new president, José Ramón Fernández-Peña.

“I invite you to join me and recommit to the central tenets of public health,” Fernández-Peña said, “from informing, educating and empowering people about health issues to evaluating effectiveness and accessibility and to developing the health workforce to truly reflect the population it aims to serve.”

As Election Day nears — amid a pandemic, political unrest and a renewed reckoning with systemic racism — the level of activity by extremist groups as been among the worst in decades, said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center is currently tracking 1,600 extremist groups across the U.S. focused on white nationalism, anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ and more, Huang told attendees.

“Extremist ideology and acts of hate are nothing new, but we have certainly seen a rise in extremist activity and more open expressions of hateful ideology in the last four years,” she said. She cited a study that showed that counties that hosted rallies in support of President Trump during his first presidential campaign saw a 226% increase in reported hate crimes, compared with counties that did not host such rallies.

With so much violence, how can the U.S. move forward toward transformation? Aqeela Sherrills, senior adviser for the Alliance for Safety and Justice and founder of the Reverence Project, shared his experience growing up in the Jordan Downs housing project in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles in the 1980s. After starting college at California State University-Northridge, Sherrills said he began to question the violence in his community and family. He was also able to share with a trusted person that he had been sexually abused as a child.

Georges Benjamin, Margaret Huang, Aqueela Sherrills and Patrice Harris“This admission opened something in me,” he said. “I never questioned the violence that I saw happening in the neighborhood because it ultimately meant (I would have to) question the violence I experienced in my household.”

A professor introduced him to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and James Baldwin’s writings.

“James Baldwin challenged me in a way I’d never been challenged before,” he said. “‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ politicized me, and I went back to the neighborhood and [asked people] ‘Who is winning the war that we are waging against each other?’”

Ultimately, in 1992, Sherrills and his brother, Daude Sherrills, were among those who brokered the peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips in Watts.

Conversations and strategies to address violence and hate must be in partnership with communities, said psychiatrist Patrice Harris, immediate past president of the American Medical Association. Organizations and individuals cannot swoop into communities hoping to change them with their ideas without talking to and centering the people who live there, she said, noting that such groups must also commit the resources for change, not just issue statements.

Harris highlighted three steps that will be important to this work: “It will be about truth telling. It will be about healing and that process, and then we can get to transformation.” People have to listen to each other’s stories and work to understand them in their context, “to get beneath the headlines,” she continued.

Huang, from Southern Poverty Law Center, outlined several steps people can take to combat extremism:

  • Share reputable articles on social media as well as your views about those articles.
  • Speak up and question “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
  • Volunteer in your community to support families in need and learn more about their experiences.
  • Support organizations that engage in public education and outreach that counters false narratives.
  • Report incidents of hate both to local authorities and to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Helping to share accurate information and to understand the experience of others in our communities is a vital service in opposition to extremist ideology,” Huang said.

Photos of APHA President José Ramón Fernández-Peña (top) and session speakers (clockwise) Georges Benjamin, Margaret Huang, Patrice Harris and Aqeela Sherrills; courtesy The Nation's Health