At YWCA Madison, Community is one of the core values that guides us. When we think of the word community, we often think of a group of people that share common interests or characteristics. These commonalities may be based on identity, physical location, religious, ideological, or occupational groupings, or myriad other ways that we group ourselves. For us, Community goes beyond groupings or commonalities. To us, Community is a Practice.
Community means that we are in an ongoing exploration of the agreements and commitments that we need to make with one another to ensure that we are taking care of each other and supporting the wellbeing of everyone. Community means that we honor the fact that the wellbeing of the individual is deeply connected to the wellbeing of the collective. Community means that we acknowledge that not only do we need each other, but we can shape amazing things when we work together as a collective. Community means that we intentionally build relationships that are rooted in mutual appreciation, support, and trust. Community means that we are in a practice of intentionally and responsively caring for the most vulnerable among us.
This kind of practice and approach to Community does not come easily to us in the United States. Individualism has deep roots in our dominant culture. White supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist ideologies formed the foundation of the supposed “American” identity, and in doing so, suppressed the robust existing practices of care and community that existed among those being marginalized for plunder.
Those same ideologies created the bootstrap myth that we are still contending with today–the myth that we live in a system in which individual people gain economic, political, or social power as a result of their personal talent, effort, and achievement, rather than due to their existing wealth or social location. In this theoretical system, advancement is based on individual effort so that “if you just work hard enough, anything is possible.” The flipped version of this is that if you are experiencing any difficulty in your life, it must be a direct result of something you have done wrong.
There are two major issues with this myth.
- The first is that it has never been true in the United States. There has never been an equal field in which those who have been marginalized have been given access to the same opportunities, wealth, or other resources as their counterparts with dominant identities. Therefore, the efforts of Native People and People of Color have never been able to equitably contend with the privileged position with which white people (and people with other dominant identities) begin life. In this context, white people benefit from the privilege of the structural head start they’re afforded, from the presumption that they’ve gotten where they are as a result of their own merit, and from the ability to ignore the whole set up as being in their favor.
- The second major problem with this myth is that we lose out on so much possibility when we hold individual effort as being the most important. We miss the opportunity to truly create, envision, and work collectively; to benefit from the best versions of one another that makes space for new possibilities to emerge. We miss out on the benefit of knowing that we will be cared for by the collective, especially when we ourselves become vulnerable. We miss the opportunity to show up for others and have others show up for us–to see others and to be seen. To participate in the liberation of one another.
The fact remains, that we aren’t very good at practicing community in this society. COVID-19 is continuing to reveal this truth to us every day. As the virus spreads through our communities, we can ask ourselves: In this context, who gets to be taken care of? Who gets to be safe? Who gets to be believed? Across the board, the answer to these questions has been that mainly the people who always fall into the circle of societal concern do. Across the board, those who have been marginalized and oppressed by racist structures for centuries do not. And the result is excruciatingly deadly.
The structured nature of vulnerability has been especially gruesome in the disparate contraction and death due to COVID-19 we have seen in the Black Community. A Washington Post analysis found that majority-Black counties had infection rates three times the rate of majority-white counties. According to the American Public Media Research Lab, the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.5 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.6 times higher than the rate for Asians, and 2.7 times higher than the rate for Whites. In Wisconsin, Black residents are 7 times more likely to die due to COVID-19 than White residents.
Within a mythical frame of individualism, and without an analysis of our racist history and structures, it is possible for the blame for this disparity to be placed on Black people. Especially because of the longstanding societal practice of attributing any problems in the Black community to some version of a defect within it. But as Ibram Kendi has laid out in great detail, Black people should not be blamed for these disparities. Structural racism should be.
So what are the structural conditions that cause these racial health disparities?
More detailed reporting on this can be found in this article from Rashawn Ray at the Brookings Institution, and in this important article about the terrifying struggle and eventual death of Rana Zoe Mungin. We have summarized some of their analysis here:
We know that the virus spreads when people are in close contact with one another.
Due to the legacy of many historical factors, including redlining, Black people, relative to Whites, are more likely to live in densely populated areas, increasing their risk of contact with other people.
Black people–and disproportionately, Black women–are more likely to be a part of the essential workforce and are therefore exposed to much higher risk than those that have the privilege to stay home.
Black people represent nearly 30% of bus drivers and nearly 20% of all food service workers, janitors, cashiers, and stockers. Many people are still going to work despite not being provided with adequate protective equipment.
Those low-wage, frontline jobs tend to lack the kind of benefits that can help stop the spread of the virus, like health insurance or paid sick leave.
Black people represent about one-quarter of all public transit users.
We know that pre-existing health conditions have an impact on the health outcomes of people who become infected.
Structural racism has caused long-standing health disparities leading to a higher incidence of underlying health conditions that can increase risk.
The previously mentioned legacy of segregation and racism in housing has led to Black people being more likely to live in neighborhoods with a lack of healthy food options, green spaces, recreational facilities, lighting, and safety.
Over 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure and tend to have higher rates of diabetes.
Climate change and environmental injustice also create challenges that impact health outcomes. Predominantly Black neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to pollutants and toxins.
About 70 percent of Black people in the U.S. live in counties where pollution levels exceed federal standards and thus violate federal law. Exposure to pollution has been linked to chronic health problems, including asthma and cardiovascular disease.
These chronic illnesses are exacerbated by the toxic stress of everyday racism.
If infected, people need to be able to be well taken care of by our healthcare system.
Black populations are more likely to live in areas where residential segregation has led to healthcare shortages, or lower-quality clinics and hospitals. Public institutions have been critically short on supplies in the pandemic—including test kits for the coronavirus.
Bias in healthcare provision, as has been seen in countless cases, leads healthcare providers to minimize and dismiss the concerns and pain of Black patients–most often Black women.
“For many Black women, the trio of an elevated risk of exposure,
lack of access to testing, and a higher likelihood of underlying health conditions
make COVID-19 particularly threatening.”
At 2 pm today Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen, Pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, will be joining our CEO, Vanessa McDowell for a live conversation on YWCA Madison’s Facebook page. In this dialogue, they will talk about his mother’s experience with the healthcare system which was terrifyingly similar to Rana Zoe Mungin’s story and the stories of so many others. Please join us for our conversation in which we will go deeper into what it will take to Grow into new ways of practicing Community and new ways of Restoring our lives to wholeness.
We have seen that the social contract in our society does not currently include all people. Our invitation to you is to join us on a journey of practicing Community in a way that does.
In our context, in which we have a history of injustice, the only way to include all people is to center the needs, experiences, and perspectives of those that have been most marginalized within the system. This means that we intentionally stand with, support, and advocate for the empowerment of communities that have been most marginalized by intersecting systems of oppression. This is how we practice community in an environment that has been inequitable for centuries.
In order to be intentional about this practice of centering, we’re going to need to make a different set of agreements. In this video (about 6 min) Dayna Cunningham, Executive Director of the Community Innovators Lab, talks about her journey with having loved ones impacted by COVID-19, and builds on an insight provided by a peer educator, Luiz from El Salvador, regarding the shift that we need to make from structural violence to structural love.
After watching this video, we invite you to reflect on:
How can I be intentional in bringing love, compassion, and empathy to the way that I practice Community in my daily life?
We invite you to visualize our world as a set of agreements and commitments.
- What agreements and commitments would you want to ask for?
- How can we strengthen this net to hold ourselves and each other in love?
If you want to explore some ideas for other ways you can live into your values, check out 10 Ways to Fight for Social Justice During the Coronavirus Pandemic.