Across the country, we are seeing elected officials and career-long public servants rise to the challenges of COVID19 while centering the needs of their most vulnerable communities. Its important to reflect on their response and acknowledge the hard work that has happened pre-COVID to make an equitable response possible.
Mayors wasted little time in bringing attention to racial disparities of COVID-19’s impact on their community. In April, the 500 member African-Americans Mayors Association issued a letter to the President requesting race, ethnicity and supply chain data on testing and cases, PPE, and individuals losing company-sponsored health insurance due to job loss. In an interview with CNN, Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenney said, “Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.” The Mayor moved testing sites into Philadelphia’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods to do "everything we can do and shows like this hopefully will also impact people to understand that this is really serious, and we don’t want to lose you.”
“Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.”
Many mayors have been forming racial equity-focused taskforces. “In response to the shockingly disproportionate impact this disease has had on our communities, [Chicago’s] Racial Equity Rapid Response taskforce (RERRT) is working aggressively and in close collaboration with local leaders and partners to mount a public health response that addresses the specific and contextualized needs of our residents and families.” Mayor Lightfoot’s taskforce was first created to address the spike in cases among Chicago’s African American community. The taskforce is expanding their scope to address the surge of cases in Latinx neighborhoods with an equally potent response.
When Mayor Libby Schaff announced Oakland’s Racial Disparity Taskforce, she said in this news video “We must take this unprecedented pandemic to create an unprecedented justice for people of color and vulnerable residents.” Oakland’s taskforce is developing a COVID-19 Vulnerability Index measure to inform decisions. Meanwhile Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto has used a virtual bully pulpit to communicate his commitment to racial equity. This video is first in a series on COVID-19 and equity discussions with his staff. Recently, Pittsburgh’s council approved the creation of a racial equity taskforce.
"People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are.”
Impressive as these commitments are, we must not forget to acknowledge that there are unelected leaders who have led many of our elected leaders to their current response. They are the career public servants who have been imagining what a racially equitable, just and prosperous society would look like, for the long haul. They are also the community organizers who have been trying to bring community needs and demands to the table for decades. “People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are,“ Christina Brooks, Chief Equity Officer of Fort Worth told us. Most equity officers have been working closely with community members who have proposed solutions in the past to racial disparities in health and economic opportunities.. They have also been working internally to train staff to apply a racial equity lens to decision-making and operations prior to Covid. Due to the work that was done prior to this crisis, public servants and their staff across the country are quickly discovering inequities in service delivery and are developing partnerships internally and externally to address them. In Minneapolis, the City has contracted with community health healers to support those who are “experiencing crisis and whose ability to receive in person help is either limited or not existent at this time.” The program manager for the City’s ReCAST Initiative noted in this Next City article that applicants who had been providing services to underserved communities “for a long time” were identified to receive the City’s Mental Health Fund which is focused on helping people of color, women, indigenous people, disabled people, and those who are undocumented. Other key partnerships across the country have also been with Chiefs of Staff who have been advising their mayors on operationalizing racial equity promises and championing strategies learned from their own teams and peers from around the country.
We have been learning from these policy and decision makers, sparkplugs, and programmatic staff as they respond to the pandemic and plan for an equitable recovery. They acknowledge that aspirations don’t become reality without a struggle and changes won’t happen overnight. Racial equity practice and promises are being tested as administrations around the country attempt to apply a racial equity lens to COVID-responses and recovery. Here are examples from three cities:
Through a partnership with the City of Austin’s Equity office, the Family Independence Initiative and 30 local community organizations, provided direct cash payments of $2000 to 1000 families. Recipients include undocumented residents who would not be covered by any other stimulus relief support.
San Antonio also created a Rapid Response Tool with a framework that encourages staff to “reach out to the City of San Antonio equity staff, the Community Health Workers, the organizers and activists who work with [BIPOC] communities daily, and pull them into decision making so that as we continue to make rapid-fire decisions, we know that critical voices are present in key roles.”
“Build Back Better Together: Now, Next, Beyond” plan is driven by the values of equity, compassion and trust. Metro Louisville is not only communicating with residents about what it is currently doing to help them and local businesses but they are soliciting input through a survey on what a complete and equitable economy looks like beyond the pandemic.
Covid-19 has opened a space for all of us to reimagine how to use our power and direct resources to directly affect the life or death of people of color. At Living Cities, we are using our convening and connective muscles to support public servants and their elected leaders who committed to closing racial income and wealth gaps: connecting them to one another, hosting conversations for them to consider centering race in their response to COVID, coaching them through challenging power dynamics, and sharing tools and resources developed by their peers, ourselves and our partners to support decisions they are making and programs they are implementing for an equitable recovery. This is the marathon we’ve been training for.