During a recent training I led on health equity and racial justice, I asked participants, “what are you doing to cope during COVID-19?” Denise, a Black woman and a community activist, was the first one to answer and said, “I am not coping at all. My brother just died this week of COVID.” Then she went on to say, “but I am here because the fight must go on, though I doubt I will see racial justice in my lifetime.” Her soul and voice sounded tired.

The heaviness of Denise’s statement hung in the air. As a lifelong community organizer – fighting against a dictator in Chile as an adolescent, and then in this country fighting against stigma and for the inclusion of people of color, for women and adolescent reproductive rights, and, lately, for immigrants’ and domestic workers’ rights – this moment felt all too familiar to me. The coronavirus has laid bare what was already broken in America. Racism, poverty, mass incarceration – these injustices have existed for a long time, and people like Denise have been working to eradicate them for just as long. While COVID-19 does not discriminate, racist and unequal systems do.

And yet, still, I have hope.  We are at this particular time when many forces have converged to create an opening for policy change on a number of different levels. Openings like these allow for pivots of direction where there has been seemingly unmovable resistance. Opportunities for policy changes tend to open up in the immediate aftermath of crises when pre-existing problems have been brought into stark relief and public consciousness. So, we are at a unique and critical moment to step up our advocacy and put in place just policies to protect our most vulnerable communities: people of color, those with disabilities, documented and undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, incarcerated people, those who are poor and essential workers. While the illness and widespread unemployment that the pandemic has brought means we must grapple with meeting basic needs such as food, rent, access to health care and shelter, we must also pay attention to ensuring that our communities emerge stronger and more resilient as we chart our way forward.

Through a new Kresge Foundation-funded project, Community Catalyst is partnering with three organizations that are doing just that – Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) and its partner Oregon Health Equity Alliance (OHEA) in Portland, Joining Our Neighborhoods Advancing Hope (JONAH) and its affiliated EXPO project in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Center for Health Progress (CHP) in Pueblo, Colorado. The intent of this project is to:

  • build a sustainable base of grassroots and grasstops leaders who can lead a community-driven policy agenda to secure healthcare investment in community priorities
  • work with health care institutions to strengthen community engagement, and
  • advance public policies that support robust community engagement and health care investment. 

In addition to pursuing this work, our partners are also centering immediate community needs in their responses to COVID-19. These organizations have understood that, in the words of APANO’s Executive Director, Chi Nguyen, “how we all respond now, shapes the future we want to live in tomorrow.” By bridging health equity and racial justice during the pandemic, they are already looking beyond its duration, so that the communities they serve will emerge on the other side whole and more empowered. There are several important lessons from their work to date:

Continue to be present and relevant to the communities you serve

Comfort your community in dire times, and they will remember you were there when they needed you most. For example, CHP is working with other community organizations to coordinate food drives, COVID-19 relief funds and mutual aid. Through this work, they are letting people in their communities know that they are not alone in this crisis.

2.      Don’t stop building a sustainable base of grassroots and grasstops leaders

Even in a time of physical distancing, you can still organize and help develop grassroots and grasstops leaders’ skills. For example, APANO recently facilitated a Leadership Training for community leaders via Zoom. These leaders will be ready to engage in person with their community members once distancing protocols are safely relaxed.

3.      Keep your eyes on the prize: racial justice  

Approaching your community engagement work with a racial justice lens is not just for times of crisis. By employing this lens at all times, organizations can unlock long-term transformational impact and strengthen the community-wide infrastructure needed to foresee, respond to, and avert potential damages from crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, JONAH has been advocating for just immigration reforms so that issues of restricting access to driver licenses, employment, family separation, detention, and deportation are dealt with head on. They say that it should not take a virus to unveil persistently unjust policies that cast a shadow over our nation, but it did. JONAH’s advocates say, “When we shine the light on the talents, gifts and contributions of those in the shadow, we create a more resilient, more vibrant community”.

4.      Shift the Narrative: Who do we want to be when we emerge from this period?

Unity is critical in this time of pandemic. We must work together in collaborative conversation to ensure that people most at risk are receiving the services they need and the respect they deserve, without fear of stigma or discrimination. Stories that humanize the experiences and struggles of those affected by the coronavirus can unite us, and halt the further scapegoating of low-income communities, people of color and immigrants. We must also continuously call out racist and xenophobic language – particularly when coming from the Trump administration and the media.

 5.      Invest in systems and advocate for policies that address the social and economic determinants of health

COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the already-dire need to address the social and economic factors that affect health, such as food insecurity, housing and incarceration. To date, the federal stimulus bills have taken small steps to address these challenges, but much more is needed. State-level actions are also necessary. For example, APANO’s Executive Director co-wrote an Op-ed urging Oregon’s Legislature to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to address food insecurity. Similarly, JONAH and EXPO, have urged Wisconsin Governor Evers to improve jail conditions and has advocated for the release of older, nonviolent people in prison.

As we work together through the COVID-19 crisis, we have an opportunity to make things right. As we emerge from this pandemic, we can’t continue neglecting the harsh inequities that have long been making us societally sick, and that left millions of people in the U.S. far more vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19 than needed to be the case. Instead, we must be the bridge that carries the values needed to build a more equitable, compassionate and just society in which vulnerable communities will finally find a home.