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What Makes Change Work: Listen To The Most Vulnerable

by Johnny McNulty

Never let a crisis go to waste” may be an idiom of governing, but from the perspective of equity and justice, most crises are worse than wasted: they usually end up reinforcing systems of power instead of meaningfully reforming them. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is an illustrative example—the white and affluent communities that were better off before the crisis (and less devastated in the storm) were better able to access loans and other support, exacerbating existing disparities. In order to harness the energy for change that surfaces in moments of crisis for a more equitable recovery and aftermath, those who suffer most from existing systems must have their voices centered and brought to the fore.

As PolicyLink writes in their article, COVID-19 and Race: Principles, “A top-down recovery will not capture the long-term knowledge, wisdom, and experience that residents and community leaders have. Community engagement is more important than ever as residents are uniquely positioned to be the agents and owners of community change." In this article, we will highlight some examples of organizations that have consciously been fighting this trend, before and after COVID-19, by making sure those most affected and most vulnerable are at the center of response efforts.

What does relief look at when its goal is to transform a society into one that is more equitable than the one that existed before a crisis? By looking at organizations embedded in the most affected communities and working on the frontlines of shifting power imbalances, we can make improving local equity across lines of class and race and geography a priority. Here are some examples of organizations that are doing this in a variety of ways, demonstrating that a more resilient, just, and equitable future is possible even in times of crisis.

If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it’s that an injury to one is an injury to all. An equitable recovery is the first step but we must use this as an opportunity to recover to equity.

Emily Madero, Co-Founder, Campaign for Equity New Orleans

CENO works to ensure recovery does not exacerbate racial inequities in New Orleans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Black communities the hardest, much as Hurricane Katrina did, but the Campaign For Equity, New Orleans (CENO) is working to make sure that the recovery goes differently this time. Health outcomes were already highly affected by race before COVID: in 2015, for example, Black citizens of New Orleans were 2.6 times more likely to die of diabetes-related causes than white citizens. Black families were also more economically vulnerable before COVID devastated the hospitality-heavy economy of New Orleans, with a median income one third that of white families.

In the short term, CENO is working with the city to fight the unemployment crisis by tapping out-of-work people to enlist in the labor-intensive process of contract tracing. In particular, New Orleans’ heavy dependence on the hospitality industry means that sector (disproportionately persons of color) will likely be experiencing high unemployment for the duration of the crisis. CENO is working to engage employers and out of work employees in this industry to come work as contract tracers and other COVID-related public service jobs, with the Tulane School of Public Health providing training and the Louisiana Public Health Institute providing further technical capacity.

In the medium-to-long term, CENO is engaging with Black community leaders, policymakers, and other leaders to secure investments in Black-led organizations and businesses that reflect the outsized effect the virus has had on those communities. As Shawn Barney, CENO’s co-founder, wrote: “The COVID-19 pandemic represents a unique moment in history to redesign a more equitable society. We must all lean into uncertainty if we are to seize the opportunity.”

A woman cares for a child at the Association to Benefit Children, East Harlem COAD member organization.

Wa-Di Housing Development in Santo Domingo, New Mexico.

East Harlem COAD ensures vulnerable Manhattan neighborhood is not forgotten in recovery.

East Harlem Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD) “comprises local residents, organizations, and businesses that work together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from public health emergencies and disasters,” writes Program Director Ann-Gel Palermo. With over 122,000 residents, East Harlem is one of Manhattan’s most diverse neighborhoods. The COAD bridges a crucial divide between government and aid organizations on one end and the residents of East Harlem on the other. Navigating bureaucracy and political systems is complicated, and complexity always favors those who already have resources and leaves those without the spare funds or time to navigate it in the lurch. The East Harlem COAD helps businesses and residents navigate those processes and secure the funding they need, while at the same time those businesses and volunteers transform themselves in disasters into the distribution points for those same resources. Volunteer teams from every community make sure the aid penetrates into every corner, for example, teams of deaf and blind volunteers, or senior groups active in retirement homes.

By spanning that information gap that so often prompts donors and governments to deposit aid with bureaucracies and let recipients figure it out for themselves, East Harlem COAD is a very pure expression of how to address this problem with local knowledge and reach. COVID-19 has hit this neighborhood particularly hard, because many of its residents work in essential industries and healthcare services in New York City, the first and largest epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. By making sure everyone is reached on the ground, and by making sure they have access to relief opportunities, East Harlem COAD is making sure that the recovery effort does not compound the inequity of the disease’s impact.

Together as a nation, we need to create models that aren’t just a quick fix, but a sustainable, long-term solution that will help us as a collective society weather the storm now and for many generations to come.

Joseph Kunkel, Design Director, MASS Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab

Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab advances the development of affordable culturally responsive housing within Native communities.

The MASS Design Group uses architecture and design to address injustice in a variety of ways, and for the past 10 years that has included protecting vulnerable groups from infectious diseases. They have helped adapt spaces to prevent infection during outbreaks of Ebola in Liberia and Cholera in Haiti, and have been creating passive design practices for healthier spaces around the world. From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, MASS has been sharing those lessons with organizations on the front line and the public, with free publications like Designing Spaces for Infection Control, Spacial Literacy in Hospital Spaces to Protect Healthcare Workers, Infection Control Guidelines for Restaurants & Kitchens, and Rules of Thumb for Limiting Contagion in Makeshift Facilities.

In the short term, MASS and Joseph Kunkel, Design Director of the Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab, will be creating more of these guidelines and working specifically with tribal governments, tribal housing authorities, state authorities, and Native-led organizations to develop guidelines for adapting existing spaces and housing to protect against infection and allow for social distancing and isolation. Longer-term, MASS will be continuing the work they’ve done through their Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab, working with Native American tribes to come up with housing and community building solutions that are culturally appropriate while also unlocking philanthropic and private capital funds for development to create an affordable path to homeownership.

The Native American community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, which has been exacerbated by historical inequities, especially in housing. 9% of Native Americans live in overcrowded housing situations, three times the national average. Although there is federal funding to build more housing in Native American areas, it is chronically underfunded and there is currently a shortfall of almost 200,000 units a year among the 537 federally recognized tribes. This has had terrible consequences in the COVID crisis: if the Navajo Nation were a state, its outbreak would have been the worst in the nation as of late June. As of July 6th, it had 7,914 cases and 378 deaths in a territory of just 173,000 people. The outbreak was badly exacerbated by overcrowded housing and the fact that the vast area (covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah) has only 13 grocery stores, making staying home and getting food much more dangerous. There are many reasons to be hopeful; The multi-trillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill has $300 million earmarked for new housing in Indian Country, and developers have had great success recently with leveraging federal grants with municipal and state bonds to gain access to more funding. If that can be repeated in the coming years, MASS Design Group and others may be able to build a more resilient Indian Country for the future.

Learn more about the efforts of individuals around the world combating the COVID-19 crisis being supported by the Global Response Fund here.

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