All Hands on Deck

“MEMO: All hands on deck. Team, we are now in crisis mode. We need to save people’s lives and ensure their livelihoods; now is not the time to ponder the future. We are suspending all non-emergency projects and reallocating this funding where it can have the most immediate impact.”

All around us, people and organizations of good will are sounding the alarm and taking action in response to Covid-19. Meanwhile, Wellville, the 10-year nonprofit project I started in 2014, is devoted to the long-term work of creating more equitable, healthy and resilient communities. We are not on the front lines and we don’t provide direct services, like testing people for Covid-19 or running shelters or caring for children and the elderly. We are a team of six who provide coaching to local leaders in the five small US communities we serve, helping them to be more effective, collaborative, long-term and equity-oriented. In short, we don’t hand out fish and we don’t even teach people to fish; we guide them as they establish their own fishing schools. When we leave at the end of 2024, they may miss us but they will have built and will own those self-perpetuating schools for themselves.

When Covid-19 hit the US, we asked ourselves: What are we to do now that everyone is just trying to stay alive and save jobs? Are we just a distraction? We can’t just preach about the long term and what people want to achieve by the end of the Wellville project while they are busy responding to the short term.

Participants from all five Wellville communities at the 2019 Wellville Gathering event

Participants from all five Wellville communities at the 2019 Wellville Gathering event

Instead, we tried a different question: How can we build a better long-term future even as we address current needs? Something as simple as how you talk about things can remind people they are not just reacting; they are building long-term capacity. With this in mind, we’ll publish a series of stories and examples, some of which are specific to Wellville and our five communities – Clatsop County, OR; Lake County, CA; Muskegon County, MI; North Hartford, CT; and Spartanburg (City), SC. Others will be more general.

The stories will show how we can make short-term actions and responses to Covid-19 a long-term investment by helping our communities to shift to systems, culture and ways of working together that will last. “Every once in a while there’s this galvanizing moment,” says Gina Federico, Director of the North Hartford Triple Aim Collaborative, sponsored by United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut. “The Covid-19 pandemic has caused our Collaborative to consider how we can address immediate community needs like food security as a partnership, but also emphasizes the importance of building more effective systems over the long haul—because traveling over an hour to a grocery store is now a totally new kind of health risk.”

A lot of the challenges faced by our communities aren’t new – but Covid-19 has made them newly visible (just as climbing opioid addiction rates among white men raised concern and reduced stigma around opioid addiction in general): Economic, housing, education and other disparities result in a higher incidence of underlying conditions (diabetes, high blood pressure, poor maternal health support) in African American communities, causing higher death and complication rates from Covid-19.  Low-wage workers who had been living paycheck to paycheck risk going hungry or losing their homes without significant assistance. School children without internet access at home are falling behind their better-resourced classmates.

We’ll start our series with Marquis Childers, a long-time resident of Muskegon Heights, MI, a 10,000-person enclave of mostly low-income African-American residents. He is one of the community’s greatest assets. He used to walk around the neighborhood, sampling community opinion and fostering the creation of six neighborhood associations. Now he’s still walking around – he has a dog as well as a child! – and stuffing paper flyers into mailboxes, but mostly just waving at people he once used to hug.

Marquis Childers addressing the 2019 Wellville Gathering

Marquis Childers addressing the 2019 Wellville Gathering

“Physical engagement is obsolete,” he says. “The elderly are figuring out technology on the fly: Zoom, webinars, Facebook; they’re even checking their email more often. I’m also resorting to old-school things like just picking up the phone.  People can hear your voice, to give them some calmness during this crisis. Residents like that. They know you’re still there.”

And indeed, the Internet is keeping neighborhoods better connected; the Muskegon Heights Neighborhood Associations Council meetings have moved online, and more people are attending because of fewer scheduling conflicts – furloughs and layoffs, or working from home. Pre-COVID, five to seven people would attend. Now, with the meetings online, the numbers have increased to 12 to 15 attendees. “Afterward, we’ll do both,” says Childers. “But online will be very beneficial in the winter months” – when attendance typically drops off.

Covid-19 has also changed his thinking in other ways: “It urges me to get a better understanding of the importance of health overall, and over time. It’s an eye-opener to learn how to eat the right way and get outside and exercise. We need to start strengthening our immune systems and what we eat and drink – more veggies and water, cut down on the pop and the sugars.  That’s the importance of the work: reducing the disparities for people of color. The African American community is the most affected: We’ve got diabetes and high blood pressure and pre-existing conditions. I have started eating more plant-based foods. The juices [my son and I] drink come from the fruit we eat. I’m not having the aches I used to have. I feel more energized. My son wakes up and yawns and asks for fruit.”

Will it last? “It’s something I wanted to do and now I really do think it’s something that will last. We eat spinach. My son wants to be this strong athlete – and now he knows how to get smart and strong. We [Muskegon Heights residents] are working with the Coalition for Community Development, founded in 2004 and now newly active. We’re planting vegetable gardens with the school [working at a proper social distance], with plans for cooking lessons online.” Childers is also a key member of Livability Lab, a Muskegon County-wide, collaborative initiative to address issues such as post-incarceration employment, access to child care and disparities in maternal health. He and others are determined to see it live long-term by addressing Covid-19 in the short term.

The ultimate long-term investment, of course, is to protect or encourage the development of children. The scariest thing about this pandemic is the long-lasting trauma it may inflict on so many children, from falling behind in their education and failing to keep up with better-resourced schoolmates when learning goes online, to witnessing or suffering directly from domestic violence, drug abuse and the like. That’s where people like Marquis Childers are building the social and mental infrastructure for a healthier future.

Well before the current crisis, Childers was most engaged with local youth, a few years older than his 5-year-old son. He coaches a group of promising middle-schoolers to gain control over their own lives. He started this journey as a middle school basketball coach, but not every kid wants to be a basketball star. He’s helping them to discover their own unique talents – just like his own as a community organizer. And now he has been recognized statewide, as a vice president of the Neighborhood Associations of Michigan.

Yes, it’s important to care for the sick and feed the hungry, but it’s also important to give people the resilience, determination and agency to change themselves for the better – long after Covid-19 is just a memory. The mission is not to avoid challenges; it’s to develop the resilience to overcome them.