As we enter Black History Month 2021, it might be difficult to discern where to focus our attention.  Should we be consumed by reflections on the global challenges ushered in by the year 2020?  Should we be focused on international invocations of positive collective thought to bring healing and hope for a brighter 2021?  Or should we be embittered by the events of January 6, 2021 in our Nation’s capital that temporarily interrupted the cogitation of our democratic process?

Beginning in 1976, America has traditionally set aside the month of February as a time to recognize the civil rights movement and accomplishments of African Americans in every facet of American society. This year our celebration might be marred with conflicting emotions and seemingly greater priorities.  Americans enter Black History Month, distracted by unprecedented national events and paralyzed by the raging COVID-19 pandemic which continues to interrupt our way of life, invade our communities, and challenge our collective resilience. However, for African-Americans our burden is arguably more ponderous. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the attack on the Nation’s Capitol have served to highlight the uncomfortable truths of social injustice or perhaps disparate justice, racial inequalities, systemic racism, unconscious bias, and disparities in healthcare.

Most aptly stated by former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”  Nonetheless, while one might be hard-pressed to recognize the silver lining in the cloud set upon Black History Month by the gravity of current events, the timing could not be more apropos.   Rather than blurring our focus, current events have defined for us, the exigent priorities for Black History Month 2021 – 1) rescuing our communities from the debilitating effects of COVID-19 and 2) finding healing and hope as we reinvigorate our efforts to achieve equality and eradicate systemic racism.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim countless American lives, the National Urban League reports that African-Americans are three times as likely as their white counterparts to contract the virus and nearly twice as likely to die. In his speech on January 21, 2021, President Joe Biden painted an even bleaker picture stating that “African- Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are four times as likely to be hospitalized and three times as likely to die of the COVID-19 virus as white Americans.” CDC reports higher incidences of unemployment and loss of health insurance, as well as food insecurity and housing instability as factors contributing to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color.

From the younger generations of African-Americans, to those closer to the earlier civil rights struggles, a frightening reality washed over us on January 6, 2021. This Black History Month, we must face the hard truths and acknowledge that blacks/African Americans are still not treated equally in America and our contributions to American society fall short of being valued as a quintessential part of the American dream. This Black History Month affords us the opportunity to open dialogue in our homes, our communities and across racial lines, desperately seeking ways to bridge the gaps between the progress we have made and the progress that we must make before true equality can be achieved.

As a community of legal professionals we are poised to address and positively influence issues of racial disparity and inequality. We can be a part of the solution, and to this end I offer a few suggested measures:

  1. We can simply start by understanding how current events impact our African-American counterparts and clients. Blissful ignorance in this regard inadvertently allows us to contribute to the problem.
  2. In our organizations, communities and professional networks, we can work towards promoting diversity, inclusion and unbiased representation across color lines.
  3. We can work to build cultural competence as a fundamental tenet of our legal practice. As zealous advocates for our clients, we must be cognizant of inherent bias or challenges our clients may experience simply based on the color of their skin.
  4. Given the magnitude of the healthcare, employment, housing and financial crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, we might consider pro-bono opportunities to bring legal services to communities in need.

During Black History Month 2021, the accomplishments of African-Americans should be celebrated and the toiling of our ancestors should be held in sacred remembrance for their contributions to the great nation we are today.  Yet in the spirit of their efforts, we must also seize every opportunity to forge ahead towards the dream of true equality.

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SHARON JAMES ACKAH, J.D., M.P.H.

Sharon is an attorney and a public health professional with over 20 years of legal, management and policy experience. She is licensed to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court as well as Maryland, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Sharon’s academic qualifications include a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School (2004), a Masters of Public Health from the University of Texas, School of Public Health (1999), and a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Houston (1995).

Sharon currently serves as an Attorney-Advisor for the Department of Army, Office of Soldiers’ Counsel (OSC). Prior to her current appointment Sharon served as a Legal Assistance Attorney, within the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate at the United States Military Academy (USMA), West point, NY. Sharon was also formerly a partner of a private legal practice in Baltimore, Maryland where she focused on healthcare and general civil practice. Her professional experience also includes serving as a federal health care policy analyst and program manager with Northrop Grumman Corporation for several health care initiatives addressing chronic disease and substance abuse prevention.

Sharon is a board member of Health and Educational Relief Organization, a non-profit organization serving the health and educational needs of disadvantaged populations within the Caribbean and South American. Sharon has previously served as a representative to the National Institute of Health’s Interagency Coordinating Council on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, an experienced public speaker, and a published author.

Sharon has given presentations on health care policies to audiences such as the American Bar Association, The National Prevention Network, and the American Public Health Association. In 2015-2016 she authored the “Ask the Lawyer” column of West point’s local newspaper, The Pointer View. In addition, she is the author of “The Legal Implications of Non-Disclosure in Adoption of a child with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.” Journal of Psychiatry and Law, Spring 2011 edition, as well as “Is there Justice in the Juvenile Justice System? Examining the Role of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders,” (Justice Policy Journal 3(1): Spring 2006. http://www.cjcj.org/pdf/is_there.pdf[accessed March 20, 2007]). Her article was reprinted with permission in: Padmaja.K. “Juvenile Delinquency.” The Icfai University Press, Hyderabad, India, 2007.

As an active member of the military community, Sharon repeatedly been recognized for her commitment to Service Members. First, in 2014 when she received the President’s Award for Volunteer Service, and again in 2015 when she received the USMA Garrison Commander’s coin for exceptional legal services rendered to cadets and the West Point community at large. Sharon was also the recipient of the 2018, OSC ICE award for excellence in client satisfaction.

Sharon’s husband, MAJ Kwansah E. Ackah, is a logistics officer at USARSOUTH.  The two enjoy spending time with their three sons (Xavier, Josiah and Aiden), and sharing new and exciting travel experiences. She is a native of Guyana, South America and believes in staying in touch with her roots.

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