public-policy newsletter

The Fight for Racial Equity During COVID-19 and Beyond

July 13, 2020

By Zachary Tashman

Over the past few weeks, the National Assembly has responded to the public outcry over the killing of George Floyd and the disproportionate use of police violence towards African Americans more generally. The National Assembly and our members are committed to working with policymakers and community leaders to root out institutional racism which has festered in many police departments. However, the fight for racial justice and protecting Black lives goes far beyond law enforcement. As the Coronavirus continues to devastate our communities, the racial disparities that exist at every level of American society are becoming magnified due to the current crisis.

Almost every economic and health indicator shows that Black families are being hit hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic due to the structural racial inequities they face. Black workers are more likely to have their employment terminated or work in dangerous frontline jobs, and less likely to work from the safety of home, than their White counterparts. Additionally, the persistent wealth gap between Black and White families means that Black families have fewer financial resources to fall back on during this crisis when a member loses their job or gets sick. Rather than COVID-19 being an impartial pandemic that affects everyone more or less equally, African Americans have the deck stacked against them. These underlying economic and health conditions caused by discrimination have tragically led to Black communities suffering nearly three times higher rates of COVID-19 than among White communities.

Institutional racism manifests itself most prevalently as inaction in the face of need. As one of the leading providers of assistance to help people reach their full potential, it is essential that the human service sector be proactive in addressing historical racial disparities when it comes to our interactions with the communities we serve. To this end, the National Assembly has reached out to many of our members to learn about the steps they are taking to combat racial inequity. We have been encouraged with the flood of responses we have received. In this article, we highlight a few of the members of the human services community that have taken the lead in improving racial equity within their organizations and in serving their clients.

As America’s educational system continues to be disrupted by COVID-19, the Afterschool Alliance’s network of providers has been working tirelessly to ensure that children are still able to access afterschool and summer learning programs, so that youth across the country can express themselves and hone their voices in a supportive environment. Afterschool Alliance has been fostering the next generation of diverse leaders and supports students dealing with racial injustice, through programs like VOX ATL, which gives teens a platform to express themselves through writing, music, podcasts, and videos, which they have used to share their own experiences with racial injustice and spark change among their peers. To respond to the social and emotional stress caused by the pandemic, VOX ATL also developed an educators’ guide which uses teens’ content as a jumping off point for exploring critical issues of the moment. In the D.C. metro area, Critical Exposure uses photography as a means of expression and advocacy. Understanding the many pre-existing challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated for communities of color, their recent photo series worked with young people in D.C. to capture their lives during lockdown and share their stories.

The Afterschool Alliance, which works to expand after school opportunities nationwide for underserved and underrepresented communities, is also using its platform to offer webinars and other online resources on racial equity. Resources like School’s Out Washington are being used to inspire out-of-school time programs as they integrate racial equity into their youth development work. The Alliance’s “Tools to Build On” webinar series covers how to bring out and build up supportive climates in afterschool and summer learning programs.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America embraces its role in galvanizing local Clubs to serve their communities around the significant issues impacting young people, especially as it relates to inequity and injustice. National and local Boys & Girls Clubs are coming together to identify additional ways they can continue being an active part of closing the opportunity and achievement gaps young people face. The recent calls for social justice and equity have only reinforced Boys & Girls Clubs’ resolve to ensure equity and inclusion for all young people.

As youth development experts, Boys & Girls Clubs recognized the need to first listen and learn, before strategically taking action to ensure a better future for young people. The organization in recent weeks has held listening sessions and virtual townhalls between youth, elected officials, law enforcement, and other community leaders around the cycles of inequity they see in America today. During these forums, kids and teens shared their own stories of discrimination and injustice in their daily lives, and the actions they feel need to be taken in order to ensure equitable and inclusive futures for all. Boys & Girls Clubs believe that the youth voice is critical to ensure comprehensive and sustaining solutions to create more equity and opportunity for the next generation.

Generations United has been at the forefront of connecting people and communities as America goes through the dual demographic changes of race and age. They understand that embracing the diversity found within our nation is essential to strengthening intergenerational bonds. Generation United’s GRAND Voices Racial Equity Initiative has been improving culturally-appropriate supports and services to African American, American Indian and Alaska Native grandfamilies by elevating their voices, perspectives, and expertise to inform and influence policy, practice, and research. Through this initiative they have partnered with A Second Chance Inc. and the National Indian Child Welfare Association to engage GRAND Voices in: speaking with their members of Congress and local decision makers, participating in peer to peer learning, speaking with the media, sharing their stories at conferences and events, engaging in advocacy training, and participating in facilitated conversations about cultural differences and similarities.

Generations United intends to continue addressing the deeply rooted racism that people of color face every day. In light of George Floyd’s murder by police and the ensuing outrage and protest, Generations United has added their voice to the demand for police reform and the equitable access to quality health care, jobs, and education needed to ensure people of all ages have the safety, security and opportunity to be valued by their communities and country. In July, Generations United will release two toolkits for professionals and organizations working with grandfamilies which will feature content on the racism, bias and injustice in the juvenile justice system, policing and courts and how it impacts Black and Brown boys, men, their families and those who care about them. These build on the work of two related fact sheets about how grandfamilies help children thrive through connections to family and cultural identity.

Volunteers of America has taken concrete action to ensure that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are pillars of their strategic plan, as they continue to provide services to communities across the country. As part of their commitment towards greater justice, the VOA COVID-19 Relief Fund was created to provide additional services and lift up all people – while changing and rebuilding systems centered on racial equity. To that end, VOA COVID-19 Relief Funds will go to projects that directly touch the intersection between the pandemic and racial justice. In addition, the “Whole Person Behavioral Health” program, funded by a generous grant from Humana, will support activities that strengthen health access and equity – targeting social isolation, hunger, eviction prevention, and increasing internet connectivity in affordable housing to promote health equity.

Furthermore, Volunteers of America continues to focus their efforts on racial diversification of their Board and Senior Leadership as well as on diversity education for all levels of their organization. Some of the actions to date include the following:

  • The National Board of Directors leadership diversity has increased from 26% to 33% over three years.
  • The National Services Board leadership diversity has increased from 18% to 37% over two years.
  • Minority Representation in Senior Leadership at the National Office of Volunteers of America has increased from 28% to 33% over three years.
  • Multiple Board and Leadership trainings focused on racial and health equity, power and privilege, and implicit bias, as part of an on-going dialogue on racial and health equity at VOA.
  • Numerous staff level trainings on implicit bias, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, social determinants of health and the effect of the lack of affordable housing on those most in need of services.

Moving forward, Volunteers of America will endeavor to find ways to center the voices of the clients they serve, enhance their procurement practices to improve vendor racial and gender diversity, and enhance the racial diversity of Boards, Leadership teams and Staff to be more reflective of the communities they serve.

Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. has first-hand experience working to overcome institutions with a long history of racial injustice. For 45 years, YAP has been creating and operating community-based alternatives to youth incarceration and out-of-home placements. YAP’s Advocates provide intensive one-to-one mentoring that empowers young people to identify their strengths and develop individualized service plans that reflect them. In 29 states and the District of Columbia, YAP connects young people and their parents/guardians with tools, such as GED preparations, behavioral health/drug therapy, job training, and YAP-supported work, to achieve their goals. As part of the nonprofit’s community-based approach, YAP hires staff from the neighborhoods where the young people they serve live. The agency’s Advocates are culturally competent and familiar with services and people who can provide accessible resources to youth and their families. In cities like Washington DC, YAP has been training formerly incarcerated men and women to support the re-entry of justice-involved adults. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, YAP has redoubled its advocacy for state and local government to redirect resources away from conventional justice approaches and towards community-based support systems that reduce recidivism. As one of Baltimore’s Safe Streets non-profit partners, YAP is demonstrating how programs that put public safety dollars in the hands of communities can improve public safety outcomes.

Next Steps

The National Human Services Assembly will continue to promote putting a greater emphasis on racial equity in the services our members provide and within our own institutions. As many communities begin the rebuilding process in the wake of COVID-19, the human services sector will be vigilant in our fight to ensure that inclusion and justice do not just remain words, but are turned into actions. We encourage organizations that want to learn more about how they can improve racial equity in their workplace to check out this resource list. For more information about our members’ efforts to center racial justice in their missions, email our policy team.