Ambassador Susan E. Rice Remarks to Wisconsin Communities in Action: Building a Better America
As Prepared For Delivery:
Thank you, John [Podesta]. Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the White House. It’s great to be with so many leaders from across Wisconsin.
In November, Secretary Vilsack and I had the privilege of visiting Wisconsin to launch the Rural Partners Network in the state. We went to the Menominee Tribal Enterprises sawmill in Neopit. We had lunch in Wausau with community leaders, including Mayor Rosenberg, who’s here today. We visited a meat processing facility, Crescent Meats, in Cadott. And, thanks to a USDA colleague, I tried cheese curds for the first time. Now, I understand the hype!
Though you’ll hear from a lot of folks today about how the Biden-Harris Administration is getting stuff done on behalf of Wisconsinites and all Americans, I’d like to focus my remarks on four areas: preventing gun violence, supporting our veterans, tackling our mental health crisis, and addressing equity.
First, from the start of this Administration, President Biden has been deeply committed to reducing gun violence. We saw yet another tragic mass shooting this week at Michigan State University.
Unfortunately, as the President notes, the equivalent of a mass shooting happens every day in some neighborhoods—disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods. Gun violence is not only a public safety issue; it’s a racial equity issue.
This Administration has taken more executive action to curb gun violence than any president has at this point in their term.
We’re cracking down on “ghost guns” and gun trafficking. Supporting local law enforcement with the tools and resources to address violent crime. Helping our young people and formerly incarcerated individuals pick up a trade instead of a gun. And so much more.
On top of that, after decades of gridlock, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act—the most significant gun violence reduction legislation in 30 years.
Wisconsin’s leaders are key partners in this work, especially given Governor Evers’ statewide anti-violence strategy. Among other efforts, Milwaukee is building an unarmed community response system that integrates licensed mental health clinicians into its 911 center. The city also is providing job training at Milwaukee County House of Correction. We’re proud to have invested in this work.
There’s much more to be done, however. Congress must enact commonsense gun law reforms, including requiring background checks on all gun sales, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, closing loopholes in our background check system, requiring safe storage of guns, eliminating immunity for gun manufacturers who knowingly put weapons of war on our streets, and making significant, long-term investments in community violence interventions.
Next, I’d like to turn to the Administration’s efforts to support veterans and their families. Wisconsin is home to about 380,000 veterans—a higher proportion than the nation as a whole.
The President believes we have only one sacred obligation—to support the men and women we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home. Supporting veterans is a key pillar of his Unity Agenda. We are focused on improving veterans’ health, providing better employment support, ending veteran homelessness, expanding access to mental health care, and reducing veteran suicide.
Last year, the President signed into law the bipartisan PACT Act, the most significant expansion of benefits and services for veterans in 30 years. Since enactment, VA has received more than 294,000 PACT Act-related claims and conducted more than 1.7 million toxic exposure screenings.
VA is providing more care to more veterans than ever before, but we are keeping our foot on the gas.
When it comes to veterans’ health, we must also care for the visible and invisible wounds of war. In 2020, about 17 veterans died by suicide each day, on average. That year, 138 veterans died by suicide in Wisconsin. This is tragic—and simply unacceptable.
So, President Biden outlined a comprehensive public-health strategy and actions to prevent veteran suicide. In the past year, among other steps, we have expanded access to free emergency mental health care for all veterans and made it easier for veterans to reach confidential counseling through the veterans’ suicide prevention number by dialing 988 and pressing 1.
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are deeply committed to tackling our nation’s mental health crisis.
Mental illness—often exacerbated by social media and other factors—is a force multiplier across so many of our most pressing challenges as a nation, from homelessness to the opioid crisis. Over 40 percent of teenagers say they struggle with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 2 in 5 American adults report symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As part of his Unity Agenda, President Biden laid out a comprehensive strategy to transform how we understand and treat mental health conditions. That means building a system with enough capacity to treat everyone. It means connecting people to the services they need, by tackling high costs and other barriers. Lastly, it means supporting all Americans by creating environments that support mental health and wellbeing, whether that’s in school or online.
We’re making health care more affordable and accessible, while ensuring that there are more mental health providers and that health plans fully cover those services. We’ve taken steps to promote safe storage for firearms, which are used in more than half of all suicides.
Thanks to these efforts, schools are hiring more counselors, nurses, and social workers. More rural and underserved young Americans have access to mental health providers. More dedicated staff are answering the phones at crisis call centers. More mobile crisis response teams are showing up when someone is in crisis. More Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics are providing 24/7 mental health care to Americans, whether or not they can pay—lowering costs and improving health outcomes.
But, this is just the beginning—and it’s still not nearly enough.
Finally, equity is at the center of the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda. On Day One of this Administration, the President signed his first Executive Order on equity, charging the entire federal government to tackle the challenges that generations of discrimination, exclusion, and disinvestment cause for communities across our nation.
As President Biden has said, the fight for equity is a generational commitment. That’s why, today, he signed a second executive order to further advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. This new order directs federal agencies to work with underserved communities to develop an annual Equity Action Plan to ensure that all Americans—including rural communities, communities of color, Tribal communities, LGBTQI+ individuals, people with disabilities, women and girls, first-generation Americans, and communities impacted by persistent poverty—are benefiting equally from federal programs and services.
That’s also why we launched the Rural Partners Network. The Domestic Policy Council works closely with our colleagues at the USDA to lead RPN, but it’s an all-of-government effort. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than Secretary Vilsack, an unwavering advocate for rural America.
Many of you know Kelliann Blazek—a fellow Wisconsinite—who leads our work on RPN.
Wisconsin is one of 11 states and territories benefiting from RPN. We partner with rural people so they can better access federal resources to create local jobs, build infrastructure, and support long-term economic stability on their terms.
Rural desk officers serve as a front door to federal agencies. That’s especially important as there are unprecedented federal resources on the table through the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and Inflation Reduction Act.
We appreciate the strong partnership with Wisconsin’s government. Governor Evers and former Lieutenant Governor Barnes, who’s here with us today, launched the Wisconsin Office of Rural Prosperity—for which Kelliann served as the first director. It’s been invaluable resource as we get RPN up and running in Wisconsin.
I hope that gives you a flavor for our work across a few priority areas. Though we’ve accomplished a lot, we’ve got more to do to finish the job. I look forward to continuing this important work with all of you. Thank you very much.
 Statistics from the VA: https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/State_Summaries_Wisconsin.pdf and https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/2020/2020-State-Data-Sheet-Wisconsin-508.pdf.