In independent conversations regarding the impact of COVID-19 in Chicago’s Black communities, representatives of Black Women Organizing for Power (BWOP), Getting Grown Collective, and Ujimaa Medics discussed their reactions and responses to the global pandemic. COVID-19 infection rates are significantly higher in the Black community, and Black Chicagoans made up seventy out of the first one hundred deaths related to COVID-19. Black residents continue to contract COVID-19 at alarming rates, representing almost forty-two percent of deaths citywide. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on access to health care, food, transportation, and more within Black communities can be easily traced to Chicago’s entrenched segregation and long-term disinvestment on the South and West Sides.
Ujimaa Medics provides workshops on urban emergency first aid to treat gunshot wounds and asthma attacks, and defines its core values as “healing, hopeful, and hood.” The Weekly spoke with co-founder and registered nurse Martine Caverl and health justice advocate Journey Jamison.
Taryn Randle is a co-founder of Getting Grown Collective, an Englewood-based urban agriculture organization whose mission is to prepare future generations to build healthy futures and to support multigenerational engagement.
Black Women Organizing for Power (BWOP) aims to uplift Chicago’s Black community and give Black women a voice in Chicagoland politics, under the leadership of co-chairs Raquel McGee and Lonette Sims.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What has been your organization’s response to COVID-19?
Journey Jamison, U-Medics: COVID-19 has given ignition to a lot of conversations in the Black community. You’re seeing in a very black-and-white way how little access we have to help or resources. This makes people disheartened as a difficult, initial response, asking why. Why is it my community? Why are things the way that they are?
We have to teach people in the same sense that we shouldn’t have to teach our Black sons how to advocate for themselves in front of the police. We shouldn’t have to be teaching Black people how to advocate for themselves in a hospital, where it’s their job to take care of us, but we do. You get into the hospital and they dismiss your complaints. They don’t treat you like necessarily a person but as a chart.
Our response is to give Black people a platform to not only learn but teach. For U-Medics, we are asking: what do we do? Our niche was violence-related first aid and asthma workshops, with our mission to galvanize health justice for Black people as a whole. Now, with COVID, we had to re-envision. We want to give people more first aid skills, but also a set of skills to handle some of our most terrifying and helpless moments in the Black community. Skills [for] gaining confidence, to see yourself in your community, to take care of each other, and to take care of yourself now. This really all goes back to Ujima as a key Swahili word for collective work and responsibility. It’s affirmation that we can empower, educate, and support our own communities, as they are.
Raquel McGee, BWOP: It’s just a continual reminder that the constant degradation in Black American Descendant of Slavery communities (ADOS), has never been repaired throughout the entire history of this city. We are overlaying this pandemic—this crisis—on top of a sustained 200-year crisis. We can trace a direct line in the communities that are impacted most by COVID-19 with continual racial terrorism.
For example, the epidemic has further exacerbated the already existing Black maternal morbidity crisis. Englewood has one of the highest rates of maternal morbidity in the entire country, but they shut down St. Bernard. [Ed.: On April 20, 2020, St. Bernard Hospital indefinitely closed its Labor and Delivery unit, directing women in childbirth to Mercy Hospital in the South Loop.] Having Black doctors and having someone who looks like you are important factors to feel comfortable when giving birth. What are ADOS women to do now? COVID-19 has not paused life; people are still giving birth.
I just have to laugh when I look at the solutions that our policymakers, like the [Infant and Maternal Mortality Amongst African Americans Task Force], are suggesting to address this. What we need to mitigate this crisis is to allocate state funding and federal funding to make sure maternity wards do not close. However, in the meantime, they’re sitting in their task force on a Zoom meeting and sipping on coffee while ADOS women are left without options.
Lonette Sims, BWOP: COVID-19 deaths are indicative of the conditions that Black Americans have to live every day, living in contained communities compared to other ethnic groups. I want to highlight the city’s legacy in segregation (and lack of resources) is the reason [why Black American Descendants of Slavery] are dying in disproportionate numbers.
RM: One thing that gave me chills was looking at a redlining map of Chicago, side by side with a COVID-19 map. You can superimpose them on top of each other. Lonette [Sims] has been engaging conversations about the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave, and that was the same thing. If we refuse to fix, heal, and repair these inequities on all levels—on a municipal level, on the state level, on the federal level—we can almost expect a crisis, every decade, to happen again.
Taryn Randle, Getting Grown Collective: I wasn’t really thinking about the element of community building that would be happening through this. I was mostly responding to the circumstances when the pandemic first hit. Like, “Oh, snaps. People don’t have food? How are we going to get it?”
Black neighborhoods have experienced the closure of grocery stores and shutting off of services, not having access to LINK, and all of those things. It’s important to have local food that’s accessible. And more than accessible, but food grown autonomously. Our role is getting more folks to be stewards of their own land. We, in collaboration with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, partnered with some chefs who were down to use the produce that we had access to. [The result], Farm Food Familias, is our project to feed families.
The significance of harvesting during this time brings to light the importance of this work to get as much food and medicine as we can. There are still pharmacies that are still not open. We need to ask: what do we have in place? In case something like that happens long-term in the future. How will the babies survive without any intervention? An unpredictable future is upon us. But the times that we’re living [through] are also really healing work. I’m transforming chard plants with my hands in the soil and hearing the birds. I’m focusing on the smaller things, not just the tragedy. We are also trying our hardest to also make sure that we create opportunities to re-introduce farm work because of the narrative of farming as slave work. Yeah, farming was a type of slave work but that’s not all. You gotta push for the other end of that narrative. We were doing this work before slavery. It’s something for us to take to take pride in for real.
Now, we know where the builders are. We know where the land is. We know where the soil is healthy. We know where the seeds are. We know who the growers are and all of those things. We have created a route through Farm Food Familias. All that stuff has already been put into place, so it’d be less of an emergency response in the future, because we’ll continue with the plan that we already had in motion.
Food, regardless of the human infrastructure in place and its challenges, is always powerful. Food is medicine.
How has your organization addressed COVID-19 misunderstandings or worked to center understanding?
JJ: We did three workshops within a span of a week and a half. We provided an asthma workshop layered with the implications of COVID-19 for someone who has asthma and COVID-19 for someone who is Black. It is important to have workshops where people can just get information. You need to be fully prepared with what’s going on, even before you get to the hospital, so you know what to advocate for.
On the ground, there’s so much to unpack, but I think what’s important is that Black leadership is crucial for any real change, especially when talking about medicine and health in the Black community. Somebody could have anti-Black sentiment as they’re distributing information. Even though the intention might be good, it is important that Black people are holding the cards and writing the book.
Martine Caverl: There is a misunderstanding that there’s something born in Black people that makes us more susceptible to illness than other races. Some people get mixed up when health justice advocates want to call attention to have historical health disparities, economic oppression, and daily living in a racist society. We’re not saying that Black people get sicker for being Black or African. We’re saying that the illnesses will hit harder and the effects are more widespread because of these factors.
TR: It’s really hard to answer that for me. In all honesty, I’m not really engaging with folks too much about coronavirus, but planning which plants need to be moved and specific things about the work. I don’t think we’ve taken the time to fully process the impacts right now because we’ve been dealing with the fluctuating season. But we have the understanding on the front end. We are feeling affirmed in our decision to do this work as a collective, and that’s the kind of impact for us. This has been the crisis point that we have been trying to be prepared for. All we can do is try our best to be safe. What we’re doing is resiliency as an understanding gained in this collective. We can show up and make sure this food grows. People are literally just doing what they can and from where they can as reciprocal and regenerative.
RM: I hope that COVID has instilled a sense of urgency and radicalized people who are not. I can see this as a radicalizing moment because there’s just so many crises going on, not just COVID-19. There’s also the crisis of continuing to watch the degradation that results in the lynching of ADOS lives with Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.
LS: We need ADOS women’s leadership because we are the caregivers in our community. A lot of times we are the essential workers. We are trying our best to navigate our daily crisis that we experienced every day, on top of COVID-19. Most ADOS women also have either a friend, a family member, or know somebody that’s incarcerated. COVID-19 has affected the county jail. We are left with the burden, and it’s up to us to tell their story because it’s a firsthand experience.
RM: I’ve never gravitated towards the concepts of abolition, but that’s the kind of transformative politics needed to repair ADOS communities. This is not going to be half-stepping or baby steps. Politicians have exacerbated this— I’m talking to you, Lori Lightfoot, who claims to be progressive but is not. They need to be called out. We need to call your bluff. We need to hold you accountable.
Any final thoughts?
JJ: When you finish having a bad argument, your head hurts right? That is something clear on a black-and-white level. However, when you put that in the context of hundreds of years of oppression, it’s hard for people to have that click. As a descendant of slavery, I’m still dealing with the trauma of my ancestors in 2020. I’m still moving around and trying to dispel that trauma in 2020.
We have a history of holding on to pain. It’s so important that people understand what’s happening because we have to take care of our bodies. The body is really an important thing for Black people to prioritize and anybody living with trauma. If you’re living with trauma, it really is important for you to attend to that because that trauma will find its way to manifest.
When we raise our voice, speak up, and vocalize that pain, it is an act of protest. Now in 2020, the Black community is in the stage where we’re able to be transparent, not only about what physically happens when you’re Black in America, but also the mental and emotional effects. Speaking of our pain is a form of liberation.
TR: Black communities are not in the place of being disenfranchised because Black communities lack the skills to be more than disenfranchised. This shit is disenfranchised. The more we get resources directly to people on the ground in Black communities, the more we’ll start to see that disenfranchisement looks differently. We need more than what we can get and what we have been getting.
Redirect all of the resources and all of the funds to the ground—to people out here. They are moving. They move in small scales. There are so many initiatives happening with people that are organized but don’t have names, don’t have websites, and don’t have other stuff either. We need to get more resources generating between the people that are on the ground.
RM: ADOS are dying from COVID-19. We need resources. We are dying. We need resources in this pandemic because it is far from over. Please advocate to your elected officials and for reparations for American Descendants of Slavery. I’d ask anybody reading this, to begin to reach out to your congressional representatives and ask them to pass H.R. 40 with the edits of Dr. William A. Darity Jr. We still haven’t made federal reparations a part of our conversations. Now we’re gonna hear abolish and defund and free them all, but federal reparations is what I want that on the tip of everybody’s tongue.
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Jocelyn Vega is a contributing editor to the Weekly. She last wrote about mental health during COVID-19 in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.