As the COVID-19 pandemic began its devastating sweep through African American communities in April, Andre Chapman, CEO of the San Jose, California-based Unity Care, saw a glaring need for developing a COVID-19 prevention campaign that spoke directly to African Americans.
“Many of our young folks and families really didn’t understand the impact of this virus, nor did they believe much of the information that was coming through the media,” says Chapman. His organization provides housing and advocates for families and youth on social justice issues, such as systemic racism in foster care, juvenile justice, education and mental health.
“We found that the media often lacks cultural proficiency. It’s not competent about reaching youth in our community, and it wasn’t trustworthy,” he says, pointing to Twitter and Instagram as typical examples of where youth in the community go for information.
It wasn’t just youth Chapman was concerned about, it was also the elders in the community, including Chapman’s own mother. “At the peak of the virus, my mom was jumping on a plane to go to New Jersey. And she said, ‘I’m prayed up. There’s nothing that’s going to stop me from going.’”
Chapman was sharing these stories during COVID-19 Black, a virtual townhall held July 30 to launch the COVID-19 Black initiative. It brought together leaders of African ancestry in public health, human services, and community organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area organized by Unity Care and another organization Chapman founded, the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet of Silicon Valley.
Speakers at this 2.5-hour event also included other high-level professionals from across the Bay Area: Rhonda McClinton-Brown, Branch Director, Healthy Communities Branch County of Santa Clara Department of Public Health; Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO Roots Community Health Center; Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Public Health Director, Alameda County Department of Public Health; Shannon Moulton, Health Services Administrator at Contra Costa Health Services; La Roux Pendleton, Policy Director of Community Wellness, Office of Mayor London Breed; Melissa Jones, Executive Director, Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiatives; Benita McClarin, Director, Health and Human Services at County of Marin; Liz Darby, Social Equity Programs and Policies at County of Marin; Shantelle Lucas, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Public Health and Clinical Microbiology at the California Department of Public Health and Dr. Ayanna Bennett, Incident Commander, San Francisco COVID Command Center of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
They used data to show how systemic racism and the traumatic fallout from it have struck hard in African American communities — with COVID-19 being the latest onslaught. They provided examples of how African American communities around the Bay Area are working to educate and empower communities around COVID-19 through community-designed public awareness campaigns. They also discussed how organizations are helping to promote policies that strengthen families who are being hit hard by COVID-19. For example, in San Mateo County and Santa Clara Counties with earnings dropping around 40 percent among low income workers during the pandemic from January to the end of May and unemployment benefits running dry, they’re pushing for extended protections against evictions.
Chapman played a compilation of first-person narratives from young people and elders about their own battles with COVID or losing loved ones to the virus. The stories were gathered and recorded with the help of funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
“I started having a burning pain in my throat,” says one young woman. “I started having chills in my body,” says a young man.” “It took my whole unit; it just went from room to room to room,” said an older woman about an assisted living facility where she was working. “A couple of my mentors have passed away from it,” says a young man. The compilation ended with a call to action “against the legacy of discrimination that has given birth to social and economic inequalities that African Americans face today.”
Chapman brought in numbers to add perspective to the individual personal stories. “Unfortunately, we are now losing 1 in every 1,250 African Americans in the United States,” he says. “The numbers are horrific.”
He also emphasized the historical underpinnings of the disproportionate burden on African American communities, what he refers to as “backpacks of trauma,” a concept that’s rendered visually on the COVID-19 Black website. The backpack of trauma for health, for example, traces the profound mistrust in institutional healthcare back to slavery, when the point of a doctor’s visit was simply “to get [slaves] back to working on the plantations.”
Another example of how the public health care system perpetuated mistrust in the African American community is the Tuskegee experiments, a U.S. public health-run syphilis study from 1932 to 1972 that lied to the study participants and their families about the purpose and goals of the research, which were to study the untreated trajectory of the disease in black people.
Chapman followed his discussion with a section on prevention, highlighting an extensive resource list of African American-led organizations in Bay Area counties. That the leadership is African American is intentional. “The challenge for our communities is that when you go to look for services, often you don’t find people who look like us, have our same experiences and understand our journey and what we need.” (Here is a link to the slide presentation for the COVID-19 Black virtual Town Hall.)