The Pandemic Heroes Saving Lives & Winning Smiles
By Liam Jamieson and Toyloy Brown III
How about a little good pandemic news? While Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — getting sick, losing family members, suffering unemployment — there have also been those in the community bringing strength and hope. To celebrate Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas were freed — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed — today’s Daily Dose shines a light on the pandemic heroes serving Black American communities. From health care workers on the front lines to local leaders delivering on food security, from people working to reduce vaccine hesitancy to those offering much-needed comic relief, these pandemic champs are helping Black communities weather the COVID-19 storm.
health care heroes
Dr. Florencia Greer Polite Sometimes setting a strong example is the best way to motivate others. Polite rolled up her sleeves as soon as the vaccine was made available at her hospital in December. She understood that her participation as a Black woman could send a message of reassurance to others about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. “If I actually do this early on, I have the potential to influence a number of people to get on board sooner,” Polite explains. The chief of general obstetrics and gynecology at Penn Medicine was one of the Black doctors who launched a program called COVID Acceptance Vaccine Education and Adoption Taskforce (Caveat) soon after the vaccine became available at Penn Medicine. Caveat was created to educate and promote the COVID-19 vaccine to hospital staff, especially departments that employ higher numbers of people of color. Polite reports the program was such a success that other medical centers have expressed interest in replicating it.
Sandra Lindsay It’s only fitting that the first person in the U.S. to get vaccinated was Sandra Lindsay, after she served tirelessly on the front lines as a registered nurse and the director of patient services at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s ICU in New York, one of the country’s first COVID-19 hot spots. Today, she’s one among more than 100 million Americans to have gotten the jab, but in December, Lindsay’s vaccination served a deeper symbolic purpose. As a Black woman, she set an example for the rest of the country, and especially the Black community, to trust science and get vaccinated. Another upside to being vaxxed? No longer worried about transmitting the virus, Lindsay could finally meet her new grandson, Avery, who was born in March 2020.
Dr. Eric Griggs A little education can go a long way. Known as “Doc Griggs,” the city of New Orleans health and wellness ambassador and an assistant professor at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine has championed health and well-being for Black New Orleanians for years. Since the pandemic began, Griggs has focused on informing and educating NOLA’s minority communities about the virus and vaccinations as they face outsized risks from COVID-19 and greater vaccine hesitancy. His efforts have included weekly coronavirus updates on local news and radio stations, as well as leading a virtual town hall in March to discuss the vaccine with community members.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett Black health care leaders have not only been instrumental in educating others about and promoting the vaccine — they’ve also been essential in its development. Corbett, a leading scientist with the National Institute of Health, has played a vital role in the research and formation of the Moderna vaccine, serving on an NIH team that collaborated with the pharmaceutical company. The North Carolina native’s work has earned high praise from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who hopes that Corbett’s role will ease concerns of Black Americans who are reluctant to sign up for the vaccine.
Ietef Vita Beets and beats have defined the career of Vita, aka Chef Ietef and DJ Cavem. He’s spent the past decade pioneering eco-hip-hop, working to make the rap world “the forefront of sustainability and food justice.” When the pandemic hit, the veteran vegan had already secured thousands of packages of seeds (kale, beets and arugula) to sell at shows during his upcoming tour to promote his album Biomimicz. When the concerts were canceled, Vita saw the Black community’s struggles to access fresh produce –– from Detroit, where his grandfather was unable to buy seeds, to neighborhoods in Minneapolis that had turned into food deserts following last year’s riots over the killing of George Floyd. “It gave me the idea, you know, why am I hoarding 40,000 packets of seeds?” Vita says. After launching a huge fundraising campaign with shout-outs and donations from Cardi B to Mark Ruffalo, Vita has been “seeding in spades,” shipping the packages to urban gardens and farmers across the country.
Emery Wright Access to COVID-19 testing has been absolutely crucial to maintaining public health throughout the pandemic. Emery Wright, co-director of Project South, a racial and economic justice organization based in Atlanta, recognized that — and got to work early. In May 2020, Project South organized 32 days of drive-through and walk-up testing in the city –– free for anyone who wanted it, with or without insurance and regardless of whether they were experiencing symptoms. Later, the group’s mobile testing and education units visited residences, churches, libraries and senior centers, as well as polling sites on Election Day.
Jewel Hayden “Our youth are not our future, they are our now,” says Hayden, co-founder of Project BOLT (Building Outstanding Lives Together), a nonprofit dedicated to recidivism prevention, housing outreach and food distribution in Charlotte, North Carolina. To advance those ends, the organization in August partnered with the Charlotte Hornets and Blue Cross NC to donate 300 meals per week for six weeks to children in the community. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve been focused primarily on addressing the community’s basic needs, like providing meals, Hayden explains, but “as we move closer to our new normal, we plan to refocus on the youth.” The nonprofit plans to hold its youth organizing program again this summer.
Tanya Debose Over the past year, Houston’s historically Black neighborhood of Independence Heights has suffered on several fronts in addition to the pandemic. Residents continue to deal with the aftereffects of Winter Storm Uri, while also battling gentrification that is “erasing our culture and erasing our history,” explains Debose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council. The organization has provided water, hot meals and supplies in the wake of the recent natural disaster, and continues its work to preserve homes, build affordable housing and support community members.
Cynthia Finch, LMSW, CCM, CMCE Three Vs –– that’s what Finch needs to help hundreds of African Americans in Knoxville, Tennessee, receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “If I get that vaccine partnership, if I get volunteer partnership, if I get venue partnership, I can have a vaccine clinic,” Finch tells OZY. After a 30-year career as a health care clinician, the now-retired Finch works with the nonprofit CONNECT Ministries and the Faith Leaders Church Initiative to help residents of Knoxville get jabbed, hoping to increase the vaccination rate in a state that’s lagging well behind that of the U.S. as a whole. Finch says she is driven to help her city by a sense of duty and responsibility. As an African American woman who has received educational and other opportunities, Finch says she feels obligated to give back. “And I knew that by me being a Black woman, by me being a person in the community, that is what would help it be more believable.”
Dr. Stephen Thomas Black barbershops are so much more than simply a place to get your hair cut. A hub of the Black community, they are a place “where social norms are established and where lifelong relationships are created . . . a sacred space where no topic is off-limits and people can disagree without being disagreeable,” Thomas tells OZY. Through his Health Advocates In-Reach and Research (HAIR) campaign, the University of Maryland professor is using Black barbershops to promote vaccine sign-ups among the Black community. HAIR partnered with The Shop Spa barbershop to form the first barbershop COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Hyattsville, Maryland, an experiment Thomas calls a “smashing success.” The White House soon took notice and teamed up with HAIR to launch Shots at the Shop, an initiative to recruit barbershops and salons across the country to support local vaccine education and outreach efforts. “It is my hope that we move forward together to a new future where the new home for health care includes barbershops and salons,” says Thomas. “Working together today, we can make a better tomorrow.”
Michael Walrond Jr. Who wouldn’t join a congregation whose pastor is willing to text or FaceTime its members? Meet Michael Walrond, affectionately known as Pastor Mike, the senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, a church he says is known for its inclusivity and for “challenging anti-queer beliefs and practices.” Walrond understood that the COVID-19 pandemic could take a long-term toll on churchgoers’ mental health, and was prepared to address it. “Where it can take two weeks to recover from the virus, it can take two years to recover from trauma,” he told The Wall Street Journal. To better help members of the congregation who’ve lost friends and family members to COVID-19 — Walrond lost his aunt and uncle — he has been providing additional trauma training to leaders in the church.
Joe Wilson Among those helping homeless people, there aren’t many who have walked in their shoes. But Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House, has. His nonprofit is a progressive, community-based organization in San Francisco that provides resources and programming to the local homeless population and neighborhood residents. Wilson, who became homeless after dropping out of Stanford to care for his ailing mother, has helped people throughout the pandemic by providing hygiene kits, emergency supplies, employment and more. Last year, Hospitality House took the initiative to move people from its emergency shelter to safer accommodations in hotels. On the organization’s website, Wilson says, “We at Hospitality House believe in the transcendent power of our humanity as the ultimate weapon alongside science in battling COVID-19.”
keeping things fun
Joel Baraka This 2021 Ozy Genius Award winner has found a way to make learning fun. COVID-19 forced schools to shut at the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda, where Baraka grew up, and online learning was not an option. So the University of Wisconsin engineering student responded by supplying schools with an educational board game he created, 5 STA-Z, and it became a lifeline that kept schoolkids engaged and learning. Having made the board game available to more than 4,000 Ugandan students while shouldering rigorous coursework of his own, Baraka tells OZY, “It’s so amazing to know that you’re helping children from home who previously couldn’t access learning.”
Shay Moore Not all heroes wear capes, but some can make you laugh. Shay Moore is a 21-year-old content creator and musical artist from Arkansas who has posted funny, authentic videos throughout the pandemic. Many of them revolve around Black culture, with ideas drawn from her own childhood experiences. Moore told Sheen magazine, “I like to shine the light on my people in a positive way. I use my platforms as an opportunity to create relatable and fun content in a culture-centered way that shows my love for all of my people.” Moore’s popular videos include “When Black people leave” and “How Black moms be on the phone.” Her plans for summer? Creating more original music.
Druski From plumbers to car salesmen and frat boys to football coaches, social media sketch comedian Druski has been providing laughs and solace throughout the dark days of the pandemic. With his wacky, yet somehow familiar, characters and witty persona, the Georgia-based creator has shot to stardom, boasting millions of followers and amusingly turbulent friendships with A-listers Drake and Lil Yachty.