Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Arts and culture in the struggle for liberation, organizing and solidarity overcome voter suppression, and a powerful voice for equity leads the new administration’s coronavirus response, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 29. November 10, 2020

Illuminating Truth

By Angela Glover Blackwell

A lot has happened since our last publication on October 28. But, Covid-19 has not loosened its grip, and racial equity has not arrived. We still have huge battles in front of us. Take a moment and experience the uplifting sounds of Ella’s Song by Bernice Johnson Reagon, performed by the Resistance Revival Chorus. This collective of more than 60 women and non-binary singers have joined together to breathe joy and song into the fight for justice. 

Then come back and be challenged by the work of Lateefah Simon. In 2003, at age 19, while leading the Center for Young Women’s Development, she became the youngest woman to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She continues to use her amazing talents to build power and advance justice. She is now president of the Akonadi Foundation, in Oakland, California, which supports the development of powerful social change movements to eliminate structural racism. I recently spoke with her about the foundation’s innovative work to support artists as they give expression to pain, advance healing, envision possibility, and help define the contours of the unfolding revolution.

Angela Glover Blackwell: You are going outside of the typical responses to the crisis and seeing art and healing as part of what will get us through and beyond this moment. How did you land there?

Lateefah Simon: If we believe in this thing that we call liberation that we’ve never seen or touched, we often need a cultural moment or an artist — someone who dreams bigger than us and is able to help us visualize, feel, hear, and taste the possibilities of what could be. I grew up listening to Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye, who gave us a soundtrack to a liberation framework. I’m reminded of Billie Holiday and how she illuminated for people all over the world what lynching was, helping visualize the horror and humanize Black men. Artists keep us honest, and we have to fund these narrative givers.

Philanthropy is too full of resources to not be funding and supporting folks who help us survive and dream and whom we know will always be there. 

AGB: You started your career organizing but then you ran a law firm despite not being a lawyer. You joined the Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) board despite not having come out of transportation; and you’re now in philanthropy despite not being a wealthy person. Tell me about your unexpected path and how it influences your work today.

LS: I often feel like I can never get it right and figure out how to be a “real” peer. I can never get the look right — today, for example, I showed up at a meeting with my hair in a high ponytail. I just have to be who I am and work extremely hard. What I find is that I am where I am because some people took real chances on me, which has been a real blessing. My goal when working somewhere has always been to transform the institution to make it more just, so we treat people with a little bit more love. 

The money I’m giving away isn’t my money, and I’m never going to have that kind of money, so I want to be an effective steward for people who want to do good things not for power’s sake. To be able to be on the other side of the table, convincing people of wealth — most of whom are White — that what you’re doing is the right thing for your people is quite humbling. I’m hoping that we can make this a little bit easier, less humiliating, or more righteous, not only at Akonadi but on all the tables on which I sit.

AGB: As Covid surged in the spring you launched So Love Can Win, a rapid response fund to support artists, healers, and culture bearers. What inspired this effort? 

LS: It was clear that the folks who are left out of the conversation about transformation are oftentimes those who are asked to provide their labor for free just because it is their calling. We need to fund people like Regina Y. Evans of Regina’s Door, a haven for Black and Brown girls who have been trafficked — whom she calls ‘Beloveds’. She has put up altars all around International Boulevard in Oakland, a hub for sex work and trafficking, with the aim of being present for and creating interaction with the Beloveds there. We need to fund healers who are carrying on the legacy of Mama Ayanna, a wellness practitioner who, among other things, advocated for birth justice in the community.

AGB: You give all your grantees additional support for healing and culture. Why?

LS: At the Akonadi Foundation, we are on a learning journey to understand what we’re asking of our groups and how to build strong organizations that bring in culture, healing, race consciousness, and art. We know that people in the communities we support are constantly dealing with death — from Covid-19 and other conditions that lower the life expectancy of people of color, as well as police violence — and we want them to hire healers. We want them to be able to incorporate into their paid work their culture, including ceremonies, that they’re never otherwise able to infuse because of white supremacist culture that demands separation between professional and personal lives.

If we’re going to do racial justice work, we cannot ask poor folks to organize and participate in civic engagement while not supporting who they are as people: their art, culture, food — including community feeding models like local markets. Doing racial justice work means not funding only that which makes you feel comfortable and with which you are familiar, or work that fits into the neat categories laid out by philanthropy. It also means ending patterns and practices that disregard the cultural cues of communities of color, something funders don’t even acknowledge as dangerous.

AGB: What mechanisms have you developed to do this authentic funding?

LS: Whatever we learn as Akonadi, we want to be able to teach others. This begins with trusting those who have a stake in the sand. We find that there are groups that are doing excellent work within communities but don’t speak the language of grant-proposal writing or are not registered as 501(c)3 organizations. In that instance we look to identify registered organizations that work on certain modalities and have them do the work of engaging with groups that fall outside the formal framework of philanthropy, often as co-grantors.

We also aim to fund all the different components required to achieve specific outcomes. If funding campaign formation, for example, we fund base-building groups as well as their legal groups, their polling groups, and their facilitators — we’re funding everything one needs to win a campaign as well as bringing other funders with us in the process.

Being a place-based foundation means that we need to respond to what people need. As the CEO it’s my job — as Pastor Mike McBride of LIVE FREE Campaign says — to try to get fired for doing the right thing, not just what those in power want you to do. I want to be guided by and listen to what people need and want and know is true.

Angela Glover Blackwell is Founder in Residence at PolicyLink.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Early takeaways on Covid, race, and the election

After decades of voter suppression aimed largely at Black citizens, massive organizing got Americans to cast ballots in historic numbers. The Guardian examines how Black voters, who helped Joe Biden win the Democratic nomination, stepped up again to push him to victory, especially in key battleground states. 

In Philadelphia, a coalition of racial justice groups, community organizers, union members, and progressives came together to protest the police killing of Walter Wallace and then channeled their energy and solidarity into broad-based election defense work as the White House tried to subvert the local, state, and national vote, The New Republic reports.  

Strong, disciplined voter-engagement movements headed by Black women across the country — notably Stacey Abrams and the New Georgia Project — proved decisive in the election. The Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Times break down Abrams’s impact. This 2019 New Yorker profile takes a deep dive into her fight for a fair vote. 

For the first time in New Mexico history, the state elected all women of color to the US House of Representatives: Deb Haaland, Yvette Herrell, and Teresa Leger Fernandez. In Oakland, California, Carroll Fife, who organized the occupation of a vacant house by moms and children experiencing homelessness and spurred a national movement to reimagine and reclaim housing, was elected to the city council. Mother Jones explores Fife’s radical vision. And in St. Louis, Cori Bush, a single mother, nurse, pastor, activist, and Covid survivor, became the first Black woman from Missouri elected to Congress. “To the Black women. The Black girls. The nurses. The single mothers. The essential workers. This. Is. OUR. Moment,” she said in an exhilarating victory speech

The Conversation looks ahead to what a Biden administration means for systemic racism, policing, the Supreme Court, and other issues of tremendous import for communities of color. 

Will equity guide the next administration’s pandemic response?

Total coronavirus cases in the US surpassed 10 million on Sunday, new infections hit record levels Tuesday for the sixth consecutive day, and Covid hospitalizations nationwide reached an all-time high, at 59,000, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, racial disparities show no signs of easing. Latinx, Black, and Native American people were hospitalized for Covid at roughly four times the rate of White Americans, according to new CDC data

President-elect Joe Biden signaled a commitment to equity in shaping his response to the pandemic, appointing Marcella Nunez-Smith, the associate dean for health equity research at the Yale School of Medicine, as a co-chair of his new coronavirus task force. “The disproportionate representation of Brown and Black people in those low-wage, front-line jobs that were deemed essential during the pandemic — that’s a structural reality,” she said in an interview with Yale Insights in September. “To get to a place of equitable health outcomes, we have to have hard conversations about access to opportunity.”

As this year challenges the medical profession to reckon with racism and its broad implications for health, a group of medical students at the University of Pittsburgh have written a new version of the doctor’s venerable Hippocratic Oath. In their oath, physicians pledge to eliminate their own biases, improve health literacy, and be an ally to people of color and other underserved groups, NPR reports.

Overcoming medical racism in the quest for a vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech, which made big news this week with very encouraging results in the final stage of their large vaccine trial, had more diverse participation than usual in the study yet still fell short, Fortune reports. About 10 percent of their US volunteers are Black, compared with 13 percent of the overall population. Latinx people account for 13 percent of study participants, and 18 percent of the population.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is quietly recruiting 8,000 volunteers for final-stage trials of several Covid-19 vaccines, Kaiser Health News reports. Experts say the military offers a rich opportunity to bring in volunteers of color.

Maryn McKenna writes in Wired that a history of racism and abuse from the medical community and government is complicating efforts to recruit diverse volunteers for Covid trials, and may make Black and Brown people hesitant to get vaccinated, though they are hit hardest by the virus. 

Are we losing a generation to pandemic-era education?

Forcing children to learn on their own may be the greatest tragedy of the pandemic and the one with the most enduring implications, Ginia Bellafante writes in the New York Times. Only a quarter of the 1.1. million students in New York City public schools have returned to the classroom even part time, while most students in private schools have returned for live instruction, a pattern repeated in San Francisco and other cities with wide economic disparities. 

But how does reopening schools affect households with adults who have a high risk of severe Covid complications? A comprehensive analysis by government researchers finds that between 33.9 million and 44.2 million at-risk adults have a connection to schools (and potentially, to school-related virus exposure), either directly through employment or indirectly through their kids. Vulnerable Black and Latinx adults were substantially more likely than their White counterparts to live in households with school-age children.

So far, evidence suggests that schools are not Covid hotspots, but children can catch the virus and shed viral particles, and older children are more likely than very young kids to spread infection to others, Nature reports.

The digital divide exacerbates the damage of school shutdowns. In California, the global center of tech innovation, thousands of children are studying in fast-food restaurants and library parking lots, hijacking the WiFi, because they don’t have internet access at home. Seniors struggle too: half don’t have smartphones or broadband access and they’re missing medical appointments and other vital services. Broadband should be seen as a public utility, as essential as running water, Angela Glover Blackwell and Tom Steyer argue in a Mercury News op-ed. Government must make investments that leave no one behind.

Healing arts 

Ansel Oommen, an artist and clinical lab technologist on the Covid frontlines in New York City, “metabolized” his grief and trauma into art, creating stunning collages out of bright red biohazard labels. “It’s a way to convert something intangible and make it into something that has form,” he told the New York Times, which featured his work.

Cultural traditions are carrying American Indians and Alaska Natives through the pandemic, Joaqlin Estus reports for the Center for Health Journalism. Leaders have incorporated characters and narratives from ancient myths into effective public health messages, and tribes have exercised their sovereignty to respond to outbreaks with strict measures. “We do have the answers, the solutions to many and maybe all of our problems in Indian country if we just dig deep into our teaching and into our culture and our tradition and our language,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

Continuing to educate the public

Stay Covered Together, a national public education campaign created by the Harlem Children’s Zone, aims to drive awareness about the importance of wearing masks to stay safe from Covid and protect one another. The NAACP, StriveTogether, and PolicyLink, along with respected community organizations across the country, are partners in the effort to protect communities most impacted by the devastating effects of the virus — communities challenged by poverty and economic insecurity — by enlisting everyone to play a part. 

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

Please share with your networks and send your ideas and feedback. And follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. #COVIDandRace

We hope you find the COVID-19 and Race Series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.