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Commentary: From the Ground Up: Solutions for Health Equity

How a New Partnership Can Overcome COVID-19 Racial Disparities

By James Head

From the early days of the pandemic, as stark disparities in low-income Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities in hospitalization, infection, and death rates began to emerge, we knew that this unprecedented health crisis called for an unprecedented solution. Now, more than 18 months later, the crisis has not only persisted, but became even more complex. For example, compulsory vaccination in schools, universities and indoor public spaces remains a contested issue, despite the highly contagious Delta variants making a case for the vaccine. Vaccine equity is also proving to be a serious racial justice issue, even as the pandemic spirals with these new ever-morphing variants. A look at the numbers makes that crystal clear.

What was our unprecedented solution? My foundation, the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) partnered with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (CBCI), the CBC Chairwoman at the time, Karen Bass, CBC Members, the National Minority Quality Forum (NMQF), Kaiser Permanente, and community-based organizations from the hardest hit regions of the country to develop the historic COVID-19 African American Education and Outreach Partnership.

This partnership of community advocates, philanthropy, and political leaders was designed to make sure that accurate public health information and resources reach communities most impacted by this pandemic. Our work was unprecedented because it flipped the traditional model of aiding communities on its head. Our approach focused on empowering the communities we sought to serve to be the leaders in their own fight. Why? Because people who are most intimate with the challenges they face are also the most knowledgeable sources of solutions.

NAHC Covid 19 Vaccine EventAfter the early success of bringing together these community-based organizations, Congresswoman Barbara Lee pushed federal legislation, the COVID Community Care Act, to set up a direct funding stream from the federal government to the community-based organizations who serve as trusted messengers to communities. This effort eventually led to the $250 million in grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration secured through the American Rescue Plan. Trusted community voices have also helped fill gaps that slick social media and online marketing campaigns on vaccine awareness have failed to deliver: reaching English language learners, and older and working class BIPOC who often use radio, television, or word-of-mouth to get key information.

The work of this partnership has looked different across geographies, with community-based organization partners running mobile vaccination clinics, helping patients overcome barriers such as child care and transportation, tackling misinformation, and ensuring access in trusted community spaces. These responsive, local, ground-up solutions are working, and can serve as a model across the country for investing in working class people of color communities. This groundwork will become even more critical as we face this new wave, and possible future waves, of COVID variants.

For our partner community-based organizations in southern states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, where testing and vaccine disparities between different communities are particularly stark, these partners quadrupled vaccine access for BIPOC communities in zip codes where they are active. This partnership helped create a framework that strengthens and uplifts the leadership of community-based organizations, including faith-based organizations, that work most closely within underserved communities.

We know this partnership is working because of efforts from leaders like Dr. Noha Aboelata, founder and CEO of Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland, a key partner in this initiative. Dr. Aboelata recognizes the importance of regular, relevant, up-to-date information from trusted sources and puts out highly accessible health briefings that speak to the specific ever-changing data, analyses, and specific health consequences around the impact of Covid-19 in BIPOC communities to foster vaccine confidence. Dr. Noha Aboelata is not alone. As Preston DeFauchard, from another community partner, the West Oakland Health Council, told us, “Progress happens at the pace of trust. Trust has to be earned. The more you can engage with the community the more you can develop a platform on which that trust can be built.”

With boosters primed to be the next national response to tackle the spiraling of variants, the end of the pandemic remains a mirage. But whether or not we invest meaningfully in our hardest-hit BIPOC communities, and how, is entirely up to us. We know what works and we must continue to develop, sustain, learn from, and replicate successful partnerships like ours. Our communities are counting on it.

James Head is the President & CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF).
The COVID-19 African American Education & Outreach Partnership discussed in this opinion piece is a philanthropic initiative co-led by EBCF, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, the National Minority Quality Forum, and Kaiser Permanente.