The coronavirus outbreak has both revealed and exacerbated structural inequities in American cities. Challenges faced by low- and moderate-income communities have escalated during the pandemic, with respect to housing insecurity, precarious work arrangements, lack of access to healthcare and affordable childcare, and a shortage of safe and healthy recreational spaces. Besides the virus’s disruptive impact on individual wellness and our daily lives, the need for social distancing has effectively shut down community and civic organizations, gatherings, and events.
Many entities in Boston—and around the country—have quickly announced relief funds for segments of our communities who bear the most risk and burdens, and may not be able to continue meeting basic needs. In this public health crisis, such frontline communities, as referred to by environmental justice movements, include low-income people, people of color, undocumented immigrants, people who are incarcerated, and people with disabilities.
Governments, foundations, and other resource holders play a critical role in gathering and distributing essential resources to alleviate structural inequities and in responding to the frontline communities who are most vulnerable during times of crisis. It is urgent that resource holders consider how they can respond with care and justice—and how recovery efforts can make our most vulnerable more resilient in the long term.
By employing principles of just recovery, community resilience, and responsive, vital financial redistribution, we can shift the ways our society and its institutions address this crisis and future crises. In the absence of federal leadership, local communities and grassroots organizations continue to exercise principled action and offer wisdom for the way forward.
According to Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project—an organization committed to transformative action toward the liberation and restoration of land, labor, and culture—“just recovery” describes a communal response to disasters that tends both to the immediate needs of safety, health, and access to public infrastructure and to the long-term needs of systems change. It focuses on root-cause remedies, revolutionary self-governance, rights-based organizing, reparations, and ecological restoration for resilience. This approach recognizes that frontline communities are negatively impacted by disasters at disproportionate scales due to systemic injustices.
Movement Generation notes that in response to Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Sandy embodied a just recovery through revolutionary self-governance: “Under the banner of ‘mutual aid, not charity,’ Occupy Sandy challenged traditional relief practices and countered with their own, rooted in people-to-people support and a vision of shifting unjust power structures, in relief work and beyond.” Occupy Sandy’s distribution centers—as well as the services and skill training it provided—ultimately “grew into projects for community-led (often cooperative) economic development and power.”
It is not enough for those with resources, such as foundations, other philanthropic institutions, and wealthy individuals, to focus solely on funding the immediate needs, nor to assume what kind of help is needed. Instead, a just recovery is one that is led by those most impacted and the organizations they build—such as labor, housing, and political solidarity movements and organizations—which can then be technically and financially supported by funding institutions.
For example, in Los Angeles, a network of over 230 advocacy organizations—worker centers, labor unions, service providers, religious congregations, community groups, affordable housing developers and advocates, public interest lawyers, and public health and safety organizations—united across race, class, gender, orientation, religion, and geography to form the Healthy LA Coalition in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Placing the needs of the region’s most vulnerable (i.e., elderly residents, workers, families, the undocumented, the unhoused, the uninsured, the incarcerated) at the center of their deliberations and demands, they are advocating for public officials to adopt bold, immediate, ambitious, and progressive legislative measures at the local and regional level to stem the shock of the outbreak.
Inequitable vulnerability in disasters is a consequence of social, political, economic, and built environment factors such as pollution, lack of universal health care, rampant housing insecurity, unemployment and low-wage jobs, and higher risk of climate change impacts that distribute these circumstances unequally. It is not an inherent condition of certain individuals or populations, such as people of color and the poor.
Building community resilience requires challenging the structural and institutional factors that produce inequitable vulnerability. Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN)—a grassroots environmental justice organization—refers to community resilience as: “The ability of communities to withstand, recover, and learn from past disasters, and…to strengthen future response and recovery efforts. This can include the physical and psychological health of the population; social and economic equity and well-being of the community; effective risk communication; integration of organizations (governmental and nongovernmental) in planning, response, and recovery; and social connectedness for resource exchange, cohesion, response and recovery.”
Community resilience comes from relationships built and sustained in supportive civic organizations like libraries, cooperatives, youth groups, base-building organizations, and others that promote collective care and trust. Cultivating resilience necessitates fortifying those assets that exist in vulnerable communities. Weathering the storm requires strong social infrastructures for cohesion and community decision-making, while minimizing social isolation of particular populations, which, according to APEN, include “those living in rural areas, institutionalized populations, and those with limited English proficiency.”
In the face of the coronavirus, local communities and advocates across the country are demonstrating this social connectedness and advocating for short-term, mid-term, and long-term actions—like eviction freezes, sick pay and leave, healthcare for all, and quality housing for all—that don’t simply bring us “back to normal,” but rather, advance our collective well-being beyond this emergency. These actions require resources and institutional support to ensure lasting change.
Harnessing the Power of Crisis
Communities are showing us what a just recovery and community resilience look like in this moment, and it is our responsibility to respond. Always—and especially right now—resource holders (universities, governments, foundations, and wealthy or economically secure individuals) must step up. These moments of crisis illuminate cracks in the system that were always there: Will we take this opportunity to build a stronger foundation, or will we let the cracks deepen to rubble?
There are many models of philanthropic institutions rising to the occasion during this time. A number of community foundations have created and adapted their rapid-response funding infrastructure, allowing organizations to apply for resources on a much shorter timeline than grantmaking (and grant cycles) normally require. And some institutions are transitioning their project-based grants to providing general operating support, and committing to maintaining funding levels despite the market changes. Other foundations are suspending evaluation site visits and application and reporting requirements, recognizing that grantees are facing unprecedented demands and issues at the moment.
But there are also ways that individuals can contribute: for those who are able, giving financially during this time is critical. Tools like Leveler are providing opportunities for salaried workers to support freelancers, service workers, and gig economy folks. And, as direct cash transfers from the government become a reality, people who are feeling relatively secure should consider pledging part or all of those checks to small businesses, neighbors, and community groups fighting for justice. #ShareMyCheck is a helpful campaign and starting point.
Above all, our response must be bold. We must simultaneously respond to urgent needs for relief during the current moment and look forward. We can use this opportunity to imagine and build a world where we cultivate community resilience to weather future shocks and challenges. It is easy to get discouraged in a moment like this, and yet Movement Generation reminds us that “Communities are exercising incredible people power and visionary strategy in these moments of disaster. The vulnerability of the extractive economic system and the urgent calls to rebuild and recover are busting open the possibilities to build a Just Transition and to radically shift towards the regenerative, resilient economies that we need. Now is an opportunity to allow our organizing to be guided by this collective strategy, to re-ground in visions of self determination and self governance, and to build our way out of chaos together.”
Coauthors: Lily Song, Lecturer in Urban Planning; Sydney Fang (MUP ’20); Emily Duma (MUP ’20); Nevena Pilipović-Wengler (MUP ’20); Michelle Olakkengil, Master of Science in Global Health ’20, Harvard School of Public Health; Danya Sherman, Community Development and Arts Consultant with Sherman Cultural Strategies
This post was written in the context of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s project-based research seminar “CoDesign Field Lab: Program Evaluation for Change Leadership” (Spring 2020). Conducted in collaboration with Sherman Cultural Strategies, the course collected stories and facilitated reflective learning about the Place Leadership Network, an initiative of the Boston Foundation aiming to connect and strengthen Boston-area leaders in the place management field.