We’re Reopening, Yet Communities of Color Are Still Suffering and Social Service Organizations Are Hemorrhaging
New York emerges from lockdown yet black and brown communities still have high infection rates and those of us supporting them, are stretched.
I’m increasingly heartened by media images of people protesting en masse throughout the nation in an anguished cry for justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. But, I am also growing increasingly alarmed at how local governments will effectively balance this new nationwide movement for social justice along with planning for life after the COVID-19 crisis.
Like many others in my line of work, I’ve spent the last nine weeks hyper-focused on ensuring everyone else’s health and safety. My organization serves 1,000 children in New York City each year, through home visits that allow us to partner with caregivers to develop resilience so that they can better care for themselves and their families.
Like many nonprofit leaders, I’ve had to simultaneously focus on supporting my team, our communities and buffering the organization from the economic squall that COVID-19 has created for many nonprofits. As an evidence-based home visiting organization, COVID-19 posed immense challenges because traveling to families’ homes put our team, the families they visited, and their own families at risk.
So we transitioned to remote work, developed a virtual curriculum and provided access to technology for the 34% of families in our program that didn’t have it. We also compiled a comprehensive resource guide for families and partners and arranged to deliver baby essentials to better support families hardest hit by the pandemic.
We were weary but felt accomplished. But we’re experiencing the same strains and stressors of the pandemic and confinement as everyone else. Many of my team members live in the communities we are directly supporting, and they feel the stress of reduced access to childcare services, resources, and social support networks. As Dr. Tanya Smith Brice, co-chair of the National Association of Black Social Workers said recently, “we are now at high risk while also being the helpers. We can become our clients so quickly”.
Don’t get me wrong….I’m made of stern stuff. And I acknowledge I’ve been privileged to stay home with my family and keep my job during the COVID quarantine. And yet, I have clocked 18-hour days and countless sleepless nights — or troubled dreams when I could sleep. But somehow I kept it together. In this forced expansion of the telework culture, the lines between work and home life are blurred. Pivoting from work at 5pm was difficult for me pre-COVID, now it’s impossible. My title means that I represent something that’s so much bigger than me, and I can’t separate the personal from the professional. This is especially true during a pandemic when I must now sandwich my workday between guiding my kids’ schoolwork, meals and bedtimes mixed in with virtual meetings with my team, the board, funders, community stakeholders or coordinating services for families.
My days end at 1am, or often later. My brain won’t shut down. I’ve become hyper-vigilant and have memory lapses at times. Don’t ask me to do simple math — just ask my son. I just don’t have the bandwidth.
Then, it happened. One recent morning, as I sat in my living room working on a grant proposal, I tuned into my organization’s daily briefing about a staggered reopening of NY on my iPad. Suddenly, my heart began to pound, my body radiated intense heat, and my hands grew cold and clammy. Was I having a stroke? Was this a symptom of COVID-19? No. It was a panic attack.
The first such episode in seven years hit me like a box of rocks. I felt empty, like my armor had melted and left me vulnerable and exposed. What’s worse, I felt like a fraud. I’m supposed to be able to guide my team, my family, my community through this challenging time, yet there I was wrapped up on my couch trembling, sobbing, desperately trying to will myself out of the rabbit hole I’d fallen into. It wasn’t until thirty minutes later, when my 11-year old walked over and worriedly asked “Mama are you going to be okay?” that I was able to fully snap out of it.
I would love nothing more than to return to a normal routine, one filled with excitement about the collective activism for racial equity taking place all around the country, and about all of the possibilities that exist for my organization, my team and my family. One where I’m able to directly engage with community residents in conversations about their health and well-being and provide a comforting hug in these turbulent times. One spent talking with donors about our plans for expanding our work to support more communities or strategizing with the board.
But, the combined effect of these fundamental shifts to the fabric of our society means that there’s no more “normal”. Forget about it. Even if your life was comfortable before COVID-19, it won’t ever be the same. EVER. And for those of us supporting vulnerable communities emerging from lockdown, the end of normal holds some incredibly scary challenges.
A review of Governor Cuomo’s New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board and Mayor de Blasio’s advisory councils confirms they’re comprised of accomplished leaders from across the city and the state, all of whom may have the best of intentions. However, what we’ve seen on the ground is that many of those intentions have fallen short during the pandemic. Many communities have had to fend for themselves by creating their own task force to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
As the days pass, I’m realizing that many of the decisions our government leaders are making to reopen are disconnected from the reality of our current and future existence. COVID-19 has erased the playbook. As the helpers of the world, entrenched in the daily work of helping our communities survive the pandemic and the ongoing effects of racial injustice, we know where systems have broken down or are breaking down. We know which policies can be improved to address public health and create mechanisms to not only safeguard our city and state from future pandemics but inform a strategy for reopening our city and for addressing the socio-economic and racial inequities.
Government officials have made decisions about reopening yet have not included the voices of people most impacted by the pandemic — and those of us involved in on-the-ground social service support to them. Leaders are failing to make decisions that prioritize addressing the fundamental disparities that exist within our communities. Local community nonprofit leaders are uniquely suited to offer the personal insights of lived experience and the professional expertise from the work we do, that will help government create communities that are equitable and sustainable. Not back to normal. Better.