Flojaune Cofer was around eight years old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. She’d seen the episode of the TV show “A Different World” that addressed Americans divesting from South Africa. She’d heard her parents talk about addressing racism at the places of employment.
“What that taught me is that when you see something that’s unjust, you stand up for it,” Dr. Cofer shared.
For her, activism started in earnest during high school. A Black motorist, Jonny Gammage, was killed in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Penn. Gammage was the cousin of a local professional football player.
“He was driving a fancy car and the police stopped him, harassed him and he ended up dead,” Dr. Cofer shared.
“They tried to say he was driving erratically and they thought he was under the influence of substances. None of those ended up being true, so we organized a walkout at my school and several other schools across the city, in protest of police brutality. I was, I think, 14 or maybe 15 years old at the time. That was my first foray into direct activism, taking to the streets and saying no, and walking out.”
As an epidemiologist, Dr. Cofer now uses her voice and expertise to uplift others.
“I was really interested from the outset in better understanding what’s happening in our communities and also finding ways to be able to address it, but not just responding to the things that are happening, but preventing and disrupting patterns that were causing people who look like me to be less likely to live out our full life expectancy,” she said. “I really wanted to be part of identifying and addressing ways to be able to stop those patterns from replicating themselves generation after generation.”
Dr. Cofer serves as Senior Director of Policy for Public Health Advocates. She leads a team spearheading health equity initiatives focused on state policy, boys and men of color, community-based 911 response, transgender health, youth trauma prevention, and student wellness.
“My professional interest is addressing emerging and persistent public health challenges through research, policy, and community engagement,” she said.
Her work primarily focuses on public health prevention and restorative justice.
“The idea with restorative justice is that in the ways in which we engage, we are at our core trying to increase safety, trying to uphold humanity, trying to right past wrongs. Using a lens of ‘all people have value’ is at the core of how we do that,” she said.
Locally, Dr. Cofer has worked to hold elected officials accountable for wrongs that have impacted the Black community. If there’s an issue impacting local African Americans, she’s usually in their faces at City Council and County Board of Supervisors meetings. Since COVID-19, she’s been a frequent caller during public comment opportunities. Ready for the fight, she comes armed with facts and figures.
She sees working in public health as activism, in itself.
“If you identify health as a human right and housing as a human right, and you begin to then work towards a human rights framework, then you are actively engaging in policy and strategy that is counter to the status quo,” Dr. Cofer said. “The activism that I’m engaged in, is just really trying to resist the sort of law of these systems to just pull us in the direction that we’ve always gone, and actually try to chart a new path and to do things differently.”
Change can take time and perseverance.
“This is largely a journey, I think, even if we didn’t have racism and sexism and the other intersectional ‘isms’ that create a web of oppression, we still have work to do,” Dr. Cofer said.
To avoid being disillusioned, she’s learned to count victories along the way.
One of note, she says, includes the community uproar last August about Sacramento County’s use of the CARES Act funding. Area residents spoke up after finding out that County officials had used a majority of the funding for law enforcement instead of public health. Funds were subsequently allocated to public health needs.
“Hopefully that’s preventive for now that we have a new crop of aid dollars coming in about coronavirus relief, that we won’t see the same thing happen again. I think there are wins in the way of raising awareness of shifting public perception, of shifting what people think is possible.”
Dr. Cofer has joined other activists in calling officials to defund, or reimagine law enforcement spending.
“Locally when we look at the jail expansion, for example, that Decarcerate Sacramento and many other advocates led the charge on, I think that’s an example of us winning, because things didn’t get worse. We haven’t yet diverted those funds to something else, but we also haven’t spent them on something that would create further harm. I would count that as a win.
“I think when we count the wins, it’s the progress we’re making towards our ideals, recognizing that some of it is cyclical, and sometimes we’ll go back. I think about us as being sort of on the tire of a car. Even though it feels like you’re going around in circles, the car is moving forward.”
She also calls the City’s Measure U Sales Tax Community Oversight Committee, which she’s chaired for three terms, a step in the right direction.
“Even though we haven’t been able to direct the money where we had hoped it was going to go and where we were promised it was going to go, I think just the idea that we’re there, and we have the bully pulpit to be able to say so, is a win over what happened with the first Measure U and I’m really looking forward to as the Council composition changes, as we continue to shape the conversation, that we can turn those those wins ‘in spirit,’ those ‘moral wins’ and literal victories for how monies are being spent.”
Dr. Cofer has also volunteered with the Active Transportation Commission, the Mayor’s Commission on Climate Change, Sheriff’s Outreach Community Advisory Board, and the Board of Directors for Girl Scouts Heart of Central California. Getting involved, she says, is a great way to influence what’s happening in the region.
“Having those informal positions gives you a platform and gives you a front row seat to be able to see what’s going on. It also gives you a back seat and a behind-the-curtains view of what some of the systemic challenges are so that if you’re thinking about engaging in other ways, if you’re thinking about passing policy, if you’re thinking about what a different platform looks like you have the inside knowledge to identify what the challenges are. It’s incredibly important that people get involved in that way so that they can both represent their communities and give voice to the things that we want to see but also so that we can better understand what some of the challenges are, so we can mobilize more efficiently.”
Dr. Cofer has seen the power of collaboration first hand, dating back to the women in her family, to her predominantly Black Girl Scout Troop and now as a participant in the Sacramento Sister Circle and Black Women Organized For Political Action.
“I will always show up in spaces where Black women are coming together in service and support because my life experience is a counter statement to the movement that Black women can’t work together,” Dr. Cofer shared.
“Nobody sees and understands and uplifts and supports in the way that I think we do for each other. The power of collaboration and activism and community work is just unparalleled. Black women in the state of California are only 3% of the population, but we certainly are outperforming our numbers.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of our Sistahs On The Frontlines series, features on local “women warriors” who are on the frontlines, doing the “essential” work of bringing change to their communities.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Sacramento OBSERVER introduces a special series, “Sistahs on the Frontlines,” acknowledging and highlighting the work that Black women are doing as “essential workers” on the frontlines, furthering the causes of the community. READ MORE