In this installment of our COVID-19 series, Allan Tellis reports how community and elected leaders are supporting their communities navigating a global health crisis, one that has highlighted several of the inadequacies of our social institutions.

The coronavirus and the ensuing mitigation strategies meant to slow the spread of the virus have fundamentally unsettled many normative behaviors in American life. While the impact of this pandemic has been felt by all people throughout the country, it has had a disproportionate impact on traditionally marginalized communities. As Olga González, executive director of Cultivando, put it, “the pandemic hits differently for different groups.” For those who were already aware of the structural problems facing marginalized communities, who are often largely composed of people of color and people with lower incomes, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic did not come as a surprise.

James Coleman, state representative for House District 7 described it this way, “if you’re a person of color or lower-income prior to Covid 19 you were already experiencing Covid 19.” He suggested that many of the social ills people are experiencing during the pandemic mimic conditions that are perpetually felt in these marginalized communities. For many Americans, the pandemic is not the first time the government has proved itself ineffectual and basic needs like access to adequate health care and affordable housing have not been met. As Coleman put it, now “everybody’s dealing with healthcare issues, everybody’s dealing with child care issues.”

TeRay Esquibel, executive director of Ednium, echoed that sentiment noting that he has observed that many are just now discovering social inequities that have always been there. Esquibel hopes this increasing awareness of structural and systemic inequities does not become an end within themselves. As he put it, “my fear lies in things getting stuck at the rhetorical level and that reflecting a false sense of accomplishment.” Further, he suggested that “our people don’t need coddling, we need information and access.” Shifting from rhetorical messaging to providing resources for the empowerment of marginalized communities, he hopes, will decrease “tokenization and patronization” and create opportunities for real partnerships. 

Despite the challenging nature of this time, many have displayed resilience and an ability to creatively navigate the complexities of the pandemic. In times of crisis, underserved communities, especially communities which are home to large numbers of residents who speak an array of languages, cannot always access important communication. González says she’s seen members of her community maintain engagement in novel ways like hosting online workshops and finding innovative ways to communicate information. 

Denver Councilwoman Candi Cdebaca has seen similar resilience from the constituents of her district. Noting that during this time, as people are removed from the production focused grind that they are accustomed to, she has seen increased efforts towards community-sustaining practices. Many community leaders have seen increases in things like home businesses opening, home gardening, and people engaging in coalition building.

Esquibel echoed that sentiment noting that he was hopeful that this time would give marginalized communities the opportunity to build sustainable infrastructures. He hopes the pandemic will be a period of “innovation and a time of creation.” He believes this to be possible noting that Black and brown peoples in the United States have a historical legacy of finding innovative survival strategies in times of hardship.

Coleman hopes that the increased awareness around social equity will drive efforts towards long-lasting change in disenfranchised communities. As he put, “we can use some of this momentum, some of this movement, to figure out how to get capital for Black communities.” 

One of the opportunities of this pandemic is for working people to understand the political leverage they have to force systemic change, according to Cdebaca. People who have now been labeled as essential workers, due to their roles in the pandemic, have been shown to be the driving force behind t our economy. As Cdebaca put it, “they have the power, they have all of the power in their labor to be able to stop the economy if they ever choose to, stop the economy if they needed to.” She added, “we need a radical transformation of the economic system because the economic system we have currently relied on exploitative practices of these essential services or labor.”

She believes that Covid has allowed people to delegitimize the myth that capitalism is what keeps people productive and innovative. González echoed that thought noting that racism and capitalism go hand-in-hand and she hopes that this time will allow people to rethink their relationship to capitalism. “I think people are starting to think about how we can give ourselves that permission as people of color to rest and replenish our spirits. The way we were working is not sustainable, we can’t continue to work 80 hour weeks killing ourselves, sacrificing our health, and sacrificing our families.”

This moment of reckoning has provided many with an impetus to reimagine the ways in which major systems and institutions serve the people. As Cdebaca put it, “we’re at a moment that is demanding we build new institutions instead of spinning our wheels restoring trust with institutions that we’ve been restoring trust with generations.” 

 Given the challenges presented by the upcoming school year, many are concerned about already existing equity gaps increasing. After experiencing the difficulty of navigating online schooling with her own child, González wonders how difficult this process will be for non-English speaking and under-resourced families. As she put it, “there’s going to be a huge gap in achievement once again, for the same communities that are already at the greatest risk of not succeeding within our school systems.” 

She believes the shift away from traditional schooling will remind community members of the importance of taking control of their children’s education. In fact, she is already seeing this transition take place. She believes that it is important for parents of color to spend more time talking about traditions and family history and pulling out books that are not being shared in school. As she put it, “whether it be Black history or Native American history or Chicano history that we recognize again that we are children’s most important teachers. It’s a reminder of all the things children can learn that don’t have to do with the mainstream academic way of teaching.”

Cdebaca echoed that sentiment noting that well before coronavirus she had envisioned marginalized communities utilizing homeschool cooperatives. For her, schooling plays a significant role in the systematic maintenance of oppressive systems. As she put it, “we send our kids to school for 8 hours a day sometimes longer, we don’t know what’s happening there, we just know they get out of hair for a while, then we’re surprised by the outcomes. We’re surprised by the outcome after never really dismantling these power structures that keep generations of us oppressed. Well, school  plays a big part in doing that, especially in our public school’s context, wherein many cases kids are only being socialized to become workers or socialized to become compliant and obedient in the machine, and even in some charters, you have kids being socialized to be institutionalized.”