In February 2020, we were on the phone—two moms, colleagues, and friends trying to decide if it was safe to travel. We wondered when the threat of a pandemic would ease enough for us to reschedule an event we’d planned to host in West Virginia—“Working While Black.” At that point, our biggest worry was that not enough people wanted to attend. People didn't seem particularly interested in discussing the experience of a group of people that—as Ralph Ellison notes in Invisible Man—is indeed unseen by those who refuse to see them. This sort of worry wasn’t new; we were in the business of bringing these “invisible experiences” to light before the public and to policymakers. It was never an easy sell.
Then March came. The United States was paralyzed by something unseen and insidious. Suddenly, the invisible experiences that had been the focus of our research, programs, narrative work, and design labs since 2018 had a far larger audience. More people were talking about going hungry or without critical services because of a lack of consideration in policy and program design. Or having your race, ethnicity, or gender impact your income, access to housing, wealth, and opportunity. Having aid thrust at you without anyone asking what you needed or wanted. Or not having aid provided to you and your small business because of lack of banking relationships, one of the many reverberations of systemic racism. Seemingly overnight, a global pandemic made these experiences ubiquitous and relatable.
But the crisis was far from being a roadblock to our work: it was a megaphone. And we had a responsibility to hand that megaphone to the people in our community who were working every day to ensure that economic and racial justice drive all conversations, especially in a crisis. So we remade our platforms to introduce leaders from our backyards in California and Indiana to policymakers across the United States trying to navigate the pandemic without worsening the country’s already-catastrophic economic and racial divide.
As teammates and friends raising Black children in the Bay Area and a white child in the Midwestern suburbs, we often talked about race. Even from our different vantage points, we both understood that equity couldn’t be an afterthought in policy design, it had to be the central focus. Even before police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we knew that all of the pandemic-exposed crises in America were exacerbated by race. We chose to explore and design local responses to COVID-19 through a racial equity lens for the simple reason that we saw the power of community-grown solutions and the potential that, just as they could be leveraged to close equity gaps for Black and Brown Americans, so too could they be used in a slow and steady repair of other rifts in the social contract.
Even perhaps the chasms opened by a pandemic. So dialing up the volume on efforts for racial and economic justice didn’t mean we were playing a new song—it just meant we had more listeners.
From March to November, New America Local hosted more than two dozen virtual events, drawing more than 1,500 community organizers, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders from 31 states. We hosted conversations and calls to action to bring attention to the gaps in federal and local responses to the pandemic, and to highlight programs helping communities learn from one another. We explored unconventional approaches for an unconventional time. We aimed to activate listeners and bridge traditionally grasstops and grassroots conversations. We worked to have those wielding greater power rethink their approaches. And our goal was for policymakers and leaders to have their work both validated and challenged.
Those aims and goals were fruitful.
We saw state leadership reach out to a local California mayor to expand a new food insecurity pilot project they learned about through our April session. And when asked by a funder, immediately following our May session, to find Black-run community-based organizations, we were able to connect them with 50 leaders across the state of California, and help them provide rapid critical funding.
We shared a comic book to help non-English speakers and adults struggling with literacy learn about tenants’ rights. We helped accurate and important pandemic information reach a new population in need of solid information and resources. We learned about the use of vacant retail spaces to host COVID-safe “tiny homes” for those without shelter and saw new community engagement partnerships emerge across Black-owned and traditional public media in Indiana.
Our own calendars filled up with facilitation requests from communities and affinity networks, some making initial forays into talking about anti-racism in economic development. And our partners—like Urban America Forward, the Indianapolis Recorder, UnidosUS, the Latino Community Foundation, and cities within the Central Valley and Bay Area, local chambers of commerce, and Indiana ACLU—found new audiences and national reach to highlight the needs of people most impacted by health and human services policies.
As we’ve planned for 2021, our collective goal remains ensuring that nonprofit leaders, public innovators, and social entrepreneurs have the relationships, capacity, and research to influence systems and policies that enact transformative change for those most marginalized. And ensuring that they have people from their community by their side, if not leading the work. The pandemic was a frame through which to examine true drivers of economic and racial injustice—sometimes viewed as niche issues—and look at them in the collective: digital access, inclusive economic development, equitable health outcomes, cash access, safe transit, housing, and food insecurity. All of these problems are exacerbated if you’re Black or Brown. Our country cannot structure a recovery without an honest, focused conversation on this ecosystem of oppression. And those conversations can’t end without actions.
If all of these community challenges don’t feel fixed, it’s because they aren’t. But an important lesson from 2020 persists: our personal values drove us to do the right thing and help the right people tell their stories. It mattered in 2020 that we were two working moms, one Black and one white, one Californian and one Midwestern, both outraged and committed to using our privilege to do something useful. It matters even more in 2021.