El Tímpano
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El Tímpano

Photo by Garrick Wong from a 2018 Journalism+Design workshop on the Bay Area’s housing crisis.

A Systems Thinking Approach to Cover Overcrowding & COVID-19

Examining the crisis before our eyes, and those that have been brewing behind closed doors

When Orlando Ruiz’s brother brought COVID-19 home from his janitorial job in May, self-isolation was out of the question. He lives in a house in East Oakland with his parents, brothers, and their families. Within days, four family members were sick with the virus, three of them hospitalized, including Ruiz’s father, who spent two weeks at Highland Hospital before returning home.

It’s a story that has repeated itself throughout Latino and Mayan immigrant households of East Oakland, which has seen some of the highest rates of the virus in the Bay Area. As a reporting lab serving these communities, El Tímpano has heard the stories all year. And we’ve asked those at the center of them for their insight on the question researchers are studying and service providers are struggling to address: why are Latinos experiencing the highest rates of infection?

For El Tímpano’s audience, the reasons are clear. As Ruiz explained it, “We need to go out every day to find a way to put food on the table.” And when they come home, they are still vulnerable. Felix Sanchez, another El Tímpano audience member, told us “Latinos have to crowd a lot of people together to be able to pay the rent and bills. They are living on top of each other,” he said. “For that reason they are exposed to the virus.”

As with so many crises that have been illuminated in 2020, overcrowding isn’t a new one. According to the Kids Count Data Center, nearly one in three children growing up in Oakland live in crowded housing conditions — one of the highest rates in the nation, and one that has remained more or less unchanged for the past decade.

El Tímpano’s participatory SMS platform has been a space for community members to share their stories and thoughts on the high rates of COVID-19.

But unlike other symptoms of the region’s housing crisis, such as expanding tent communities, or parked vehicles serving as shelter, the crisis of those living five people to a room, or in a garage or a workplace, is easier to ignore, especially when it affects communities newsrooms lack strong relationships with. In fact, in all the years of news coverage of the Bay Area’s housing crisis, overcrowding has been nearly invisible.

Now, COVID-19 has turned a slow-brewing crisis into an imminent danger. For thousands of residents, their own homes put them at risk of contracting or spreading a fatal disease.

Hearing their stories has led us to ask:

  • How did it come to this?
  • What are the opportunities for change?
  • And what role can journalists play in this moment to direct attention not just to the crisis before our eyes, but the ones below the surface?

Systems Thinking & Collaboration to Shift Coverage

For the next six months, El Tímpano is embarking on a reporting project to pursue these questions. We’ve teamed up with Journalism + Design, a lab at The New School that uses a practice called systems thinking to help journalists better examine the interwoven systems, policies, narratives, and beliefs that fuel our most complex problems.

Together, we’re embarking on an intensive, collaborative process to understand the key drivers of overcrowded housing, how it has factored into the high rates of COVID-19 among Latino and Mayan immigrants, and opportunities to address the disparities we’re seeing. A few key questions that will guide our investigation:

  • How did Oakland come to have such high rates of overcrowded housing?
  • What are the policies, practices, and social changes that have contributed to it, and what are the overarching assumptions, narratives, and beliefs that make this issue so entrenched?
  • How has overcrowded housing impacted the health of residents and factored into the high rates of COVID-19 among Latinos and Mayans in Oakland and beyond?
  • What efforts exist that could address overcrowding and why, despite these, does the problem persist?

To get a holistic view of the forces and factors at play in Oakland’s overcrowded housing crisis, we’ll connect with the people closest to this issue, including El Tímpano audience members directly impacted by overcrowding, as well as local health care workers, educators, organizers, developers, public policy officials, and researchers.

Collaborative design session with journalists from seven news outlets.

Early conversations with these stakeholders will fundamentally inform where we focus our reporting. We’ll also use systems thinking to draw from the insights we learn and create visuals that help us better understand the key drivers of the problem and ideas to address them.

And there’s another group of stakeholders that we’re incorporating into this process: local media. Journalists don’t tend to think of ourselves as stakeholders in the stories we cover, but we are impacted by dominant narratives and have power to shift them. El Tímpano has convened local journalists from other outlets to participate in our collaborative design process so that together, we can deepen our collective understanding of the intersections of health and housing.

As we collaborate to design our coverage, we’ll question our role as journalists, and ask:

  • How might we elevate the voices and experiences of Latinx and Mayan indigenous immigrants in coverage and understanding of the housing crisis, the intersection between COVID-19 and housing, and opportunities for change?
  • How might we better inform those impacted by unsafe housing conditions of relevant resources, context, and information?

After all, we believe journalism can make a difference, for good or for bad, intentionally or not. Through nuance and attention, or through invisibility, sensationalism, and neglect. One of the first steps in Journalism + Design’s systems thinking toolkit is to create a guiding vision for your reporting, to be explicit about what you want it to achieve. Ours is this:

To produce coverage of the housing and public health crises that is inclusive of and shaped by the voices and experiences of working-class Latinx and Mayan immigrants, that contributes to greater equity in local coverage, civic conversations, and access to information on the issue, and that furthers understanding of the impacts, symptoms, and systemic causes of overcrowded housing and health disparities.

We plan to share more here throughout the process, so stay tuned. And if your own life or work provides you with unique insight on the intersection of COVID-19 and overcrowding in Oakland, we’d love to speak with you. Get in touch by writing to hola [at] eltimpano [dot] org.

Madeleine Bair is the Founding Director of El Tímpano, a Spanish-language reporting lab designed with and for Oakland’s Latinx and Mayan immigrant communities. Thanks to Cole Goins and Kayla Christopherson, the Journalism + Design leads for this project, as well as J+D intern Sonya Lustig, for their contributions. This project is made possible thanks to the support of Renaissance Journalism.

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Madeleine Bair

Madeleine Bair

Journalist & civic media innovator. Oakland native. Cumbiambera.