Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, an organization that works towards improving nonprofits, in partnership with United Way of Washtenaw County, held a virtual conversation about the inequities both in and outside of health care community leaders within Washtenaw County have noticed. It was the first in a series of conversations called “Centering Justice.” 

Melvin Henley, organizational development consultant for NEW, and Yodit Mesfin Johnson, chief executive officer and president of NEW, hosted the event. Johnson explained that the purpose of the conversation was to extend NEW’s mission of better working alongside leaders in the community to create strategic solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“One of the reasons why we’re here is to center identity in the midst of a pandemic,” Johnson said. “These institutionalized health inequities make communities more vulnerable to health crises in good times and bad.” 

Henley and Johnson began the conversation by noting the disproportionate effect of the virus on the Black community in Michigan, with 41 percent of deaths in Michigan so far being in the African American population.

In her April 9 press conference, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of a task force to examine racial disparities amid this pandemic. 

“The task force will finally allow for the opportunity to humanize this virus,” Johnson said. 

After the introduction, panelists from throughout the community shared how their intersectional identities have provided another dimension to this pandemic. 

One of the panelists, Toni Kayumi, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor YMCA, is a resident of a rural area of Washtenaw County. She discussed the educational inequities that will arise as a result of the expectations for remote learning. According to Kayumi, a number of households in Washtenaw County do not have access to broadband internet, which proves difficult for high school and college students who need regular internet access to complete coursework. 

Additionally, Kayumi expressed concern over the hate crimes and xenophobia on the rise against the Asian community. She said she believes the political officials’ rhetoric has facilitated the development

“This type of xenophobic phrasing only adds to the hate crimes that we’re seeing taking place,” Kayumi said. “Be an upstander and correct the fallacies that are out there.” 

Hamida Bhagirathy, senior program manager of the Program on Intergroup Relations, discussed the relationship between socioeconomic status, grief and leave policies. Bhagirathy said she lost a friend to COVID-19 but still has to work from home. 

Her situation, Bhagirathy said, has prompted her to think about the ways in which expressing grief has been restricted during this time by stay-at-home orders as well as work policies. 

“What has risen for me is the thought that this is a time of grief, death, mourning and uncertainty,” Bhagirathy said. “So in some ways, really focusing on continually performing to be the same as we were before is taking humanity away from this crisis.”  

Another panelist, Darryl Johnson, executive director of Mentor 2 Youth, works directly with members of the African American community in Washtenaw County. He voiced his concerns about the lack of solutions for people of lower-class status, particularly in relation to barriers of inadequate technology access. He proposed a system to text families important messages related to COVID-19, including where essential workers can get food, masks and gloves. 

“Community is the solution so that people at the bottom of the funnel can get to this information,” Johnson said. 

Johnson noted that the numerous disparities being exposed during this time of crisis require action to be taken even after the end of the pandemic.

“We are all craving to go back to our sense of normalcy, but many do not realize how consequential that really is,” Johnson said.

Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at celenep@umich.edu

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