This month I wrote about the suffocation of coronavirus...and of isolation… But unfortunately, the inability to breathe freely this season didn’t stop with those issues.
Coronavirus, isolation, and police brutality? I decided to listen in to learn how the crises of this season were affecting the Black community in Cambridge.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Cambridge School Committee Vice Chair Manikka Bowman and former mayor and sitting City Councillor Denise Simmons began to notice that minorities were three times more likely to become infected with the disease. Why was that? They cited underlying medical conditions, unequal access to healthcare, and employment in essential services as leading reasons. It is clear that even in a city as progressive as Cambridge, we still have a long way to go towards equity.
In response to this disparity, these two courageous women initiated a series of panel discussions about how the pandemic has affected the Black community in Cambridge, covering topics like education, mental health and an intergenerational conversation on the intersection of COVID and racism.
I listened in, and this is what I gathered from the first three of these probing conversations:
First, the Black community has sayings I have never heard before. Sayings like,
“If every hand that reached, could touch…” referring to the inequities facing Black Americans who often find themselves on the other side of a locked door. And perhaps, more specifically as it relates to contagious disease,
“When everybody else gets a cold, we get the flu.” Or, in this context, getting affected by COVID at a rate three times greater than whites. Dr. Jeanette Callahan of the Cambridge Health Alliance shared that new studies in epigenetics (the study of changes in heritable gene expression due to environmental factors) suggest that underlying conditions like vitamin deficiencies, as well as inherited genetic changes from “internalized trauma,” the results of multi-generational struggle, effectively amplify the vulnerability of this population. Mental health workers further spoke of the stigma of mental health issues within the Black community such that people are prevented from receiving the emotional support most have needed during this time -- even as much as a “how are you today?”
Educators notice changes in their students: high anxiety, disconnection, worry about family members who continue to work as essential workers, lack of IEP services, new responsibilities like taking care of younger family members or doing the cooking at home. Community partners like Becoming a Man, Workforce, Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, My Brother’s Keeper, Building Equity Bridges and the NAACP have tried to fill the gaps by providing space to support the mental health of their students. They have also worked to provide information on meals available through the Cambridge Public Schools as well as guidance for how to access the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund.
But they kept hearing from people, “we are too scared to leave the house to get that food.” Also, they heard, “It’s hard to engage in teaching or learning when you’re wondering, how does this make a difference in my life right now?”
First they encouraged people to pay attention to their bodily needs -- for exercise, rest, even a warm bath to help relieve the stress. But then they got serious about education. Let’s provide a variety of resources for these students -- these scholars -- who need an array of options to meet their needs, because we don’t want to be any further behind when we return to school, they said. They called for an elevation in language (as in referring to the students as scholars) as well as expectations to combat the status quo that has perpetuated grossly unbalanced academic outcomes between white and minority students in the district.
Educators and community members encouraged families and parents to use their voices and give feedback so that the system can give them what they need. They noted that the school system can change faster than we thought it could...and perhaps now is the time to leverage that momentum to make changes toward equity during this time. Vice Chair Bowman also announced new funding to be dedicated to hiring additional social workers for the district, in an attempt to fill the gaps. More guidance counselors may also be hired.
More counseling of course, because during the time between the first panel discussion on May 24th and the third panel discussion on June 21st, things heated up across the country for another reason.
COVID has been an accelerator for the conversation about racism. Perhaps it’s the lack of sports or other distractions that let us put it off until later, as one Cambridge father mused. Whatever the reason, progress wasn’t going to be made until people made it a priority, but more and more people are stepping up to act.
Multiple panelists began to call for Cambridge to declare racism a public health emergency, as Somerville did recently, with Mayor Joseph Curtatone stating:
“"No one should fear for their lives because of the color of their skin. No one should have to grieve the loss of a loved one, friend, or stranger who died because they were black. No one should have to fear those who are sworn to protect and serve."
Panelists responded to parents’ questions about how to discuss recent events with their children, advising age-appropriate conversations first, but that when the time is right, to educate each other on the history that hasn’t made it to the textbooks yet. And when you have shattered their reality, then, they said, “be prepared to love your child after the conversation, because you won’t be able to answer all questions.”
Panelists also discussed how to safely attend protests during this ongoing pandemic. The Chief Public Health Officer for Cambridge reminded people to take precautions -- mask up, stay six feet apart, think about getting testing for coronavirus afterwards. Other panelists encouraged people to think about what else they could do besides attending a protest -- encourage Congress to provide PPE for protesters, sign petitions, or use apps to fill up Trump’s rally with phony attendees to falsely elevate attendance levels...
The most recent panel discussion took place during Juneteenth weekend, the holiday commemorating the announcement by federal soldiers in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 proclaiming that all slaves were now free. Several Black panelists were unaware of Juneteenth prior to college or adulthood. Two cited the show “Blackish” as the source of their knowledge. But as community members caught on, they enjoyed the celebration in front of the Main Library, hosted by the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, and began to think of Juneteenth as a time to remember that, in the words of one high school student, “no one is free until everyone is free.”
The holiday has been elevated to attention lately, and recognized, as HR Strategist and Cambridge father Jeff Davis put it, as “a reclaiming of the stories of escaped slaves and sharecroppers that have been taken from African Americans for over 400 years.” Ken Reeves, the President of the Cambridge chapter of the NAACP pointed out that Cambridge declared Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a city holiday ten years prior to it becoming a federal one. Panelists hoped that they could take the lead on elevating Juneteenth to that same level, referencing it as a focal point to address racism in this country.
Panelists also referred to the impact of hearing Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” which will be read as part of Cambridge’s 4th of July Celebration later this week.
Some bottom lines and takeaways from Ken Reeves, President of the NAACP Cambridge:
For our nation: “Black hearts need to be unburdened. And white hearts need to change.”
For Cambridge, in particular: “We always thought we had a safety net that would catch everybody, “but due to front line jobs or overcrowded living situations where they can’t socially distance,” Black Canterbridgians are disproportionately affected by COVID.
Some next steps that were suggested as discussions came to a close:
-Invitation to participate in a new task force to reimagine how to open schools again.
-Invitation to School Committee and City Council meetings.
-Push for racism to be declared a public health emergency.
-Learn the real history, write it down, and pass it on. (Follow the 1619 Project in the NY Times Magazine.)
-Give thermometers to every family -- make them feel seen.
-Maintain physical distance; keep each other safe.
-Consider anti-racist strategy like this: First, name racism. Second, ask how is racism operating here? Then, organize and strategize to act.
If any of this was uncomfortable or difficult to read, remember that the first goal here is to listen. Just listen.
Click here to view the previous panel discussions: bit.ly/2M6DELL
Listen in. You may feel like you’re not accomplishing anything. Tell those thoughts to be quiet. Then, hear these panelists, and make their story a part of your story.
As the Cambridge NAACP President Ken Reeves said in closing,
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.