Determined
This series uses the Social Determinants of Health as a foundational framework and guideposts to bring you stories of how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted some of our African American communities.

Last September, Rachel Gregory went to the doctor. She was working at a local assisted-living facility and for months her left hip had been hurting. Since she was 17 years old, Gregory, like her mother before her, has worked in nursing and geriatric care.

“I love the joy of seeing their faces when I get them up in the morning or put them to bed,” she said of her patients. “The satisfaction of taking care of someone else, making sure they’re clean, they’re fed, they’re taken care of — it’s what I would want someone to do for my family.”

DSC_0483

Rachel Gregory

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

Gregory’s work is incredibly physical, she’s on her feet almost all the time. Ten years ago, she had her right hip totally replaced — she’d worn down all the cartilage until it was just bone rubbing on bone. So she was worried about the pain her left hip had recently been giving her. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t stand for longer than 10 minutes. But she dreaded what bad news might come from a doctor’s visit. “I love my work,” she said. “I didn’t want to stop working. I’ve got some years left; I don’t want to retire at 48. I want to retire at 68 or 78.”

The doctor said the pain was coming from a torn labrum, the cartilage that protects her hip socket. OK, she thought, I’ll have surgery to repair it. But there was a catch, it would require drilling into her left hip. “They said my hip bones are so fragile that they’ll just crumble if I have surgery,” she said. OK, she thought, I’ll get this other hip replaced first, and then repair the torn labrum. But again, a catch. “I still have cartilage in my hip, so my doctor won’t do the hip replacement,” she said.

Gregory broke down crying in the doctor’s office. “Please,” she said. She needed to work, to pay her bills. The doctor said that without private insurance, and with active cartilage still there, he couldn’t approve a hip replacement. Instead, for the last nine months she’s lived with the pain, slowly wearing down the cartilage until she can replace her hip, to then repair her labrum. She takes Tylenol for the pain. 

“But it doesn’t help,” she said. “It’s like taking a Tic Tac.”

So, unemployed, she applied, for the first time in her life, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps, she said, but it’s not enough. On the 21st of the month, the $6 remaining on her card had to last her nine more days. She also applied for disability benefits, but her initial application was denied. She had a letter from her doctor saying she couldn’t work, but the Social Security Administration (SSA) argued that she could work. She appealed the denial, but with the pandemic, the SSA has been slow responding, so she enlisted the help of a private disability advocacy firm. They are currently fighting for her appeal. 

Gregory said all of this feels incredibly uncomfortable. She’s never reached out to organizations for help before. “I’ve always worked, I’ve never needed them,” she said. 

This was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Then businesses closed and grocery store aisles emptied. It made the already difficult task of looking for work that she could physically do all but impossible for Gregory. It made it impossible for her to afford private insurance to get her hip replaced to fix her labrum to go back to work.  It further delayed her disability benefits. 

“Day to day is rough,” she said. “It’s been like hell. I’m at my wits end.”

 

“It was meant to be a bridge”

On the afternoon of March 12, the day Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, Eboni Bugg walked the two blocks to CitySpace from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation’s (CACF) offices. Bugg, who is CACF’s director of programs, joined a room of city and county staff, first responders, journalists and concerned residents as the Health Department told everyone what to expect from the coming COVID-19 pandemic and to not panic.

DSC_0474

The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

The next day, CACF created the Community Emergency Response Fund (CERF). “As a region of interconnected people, we have the opportunity and responsibility to care for one another,” said Brennan Gould, CACF’s president and CEO, in a press release. Thousands of people were about to lose work, hundreds would soon apply for SNAP benefits and visit food pantries and many would plead with landlords and banks to accept late or reduced housing payments. The CERF would help all these people, and more.

Within a week, the CACF had raised more than $2 million from more than 150 donors and it needed a way for people to get the money. So it launched the CERF’s household grant program and, in an unprecedented move, formed a five-way partnership with the community organizing group Cville Community Cares, the United Way of Greater Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville.

The city and county had staff who weren’t working and could answer calls over the specially created COVID-19 Emergency Response Helpline. United Way and Cville Community Cares could process and disburse a high volume of payments. And Cville Community Cares was deeply connected to communities being hardest hit and had an army of active volunteers. (Before the partnership, the group of organizers and activists provided financial support to more than 130 households in just five days.) And then, of course, CACF had the money — the CERF.

DSC_4154

Within a week, the CACF had raised more than $2 million from more than 150 donors and it needed a way for people to get the money. So it launched the CERF’s household grant program and, in an unprecedented move, formed a five-way partnership with the community organizing group Cville Community Cares, the United Way of Greater Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

Any household in the city and surrounding counties could apply. They could only receive one payment, but it could be for as much as $1,000, depending on its need and size. An applicant would call the helpline or fill out an online form, detailing their circumstances and needs, and after a time-consuming verification and de-duplication process, they received a payment.  

Initially, the program was only supposed to last 14 days. 

“It was always meant to be a bridge to get people through a two-week quarantine period without feeling like they had to take unnecessary risks with their lives to work,” said Bugg. “It was meant to be a bridge to unemployment payments or stimulus checks. And it was for other folks who didn’t have a choice, to at the very least help them buy protective equipment or pay for rent or childcare. This was really about triage.”

But the need was vast, Bugg said, and the donations kept coming. Over the eventual eight weeks it was active, the CERF raised more than $5 million from 830 donors — 82% of whom gave $500 or less and 68% of whom had never before given to CACF, according to Brendan Wolfe, CACF’s communications manager. 

Though African Americans make up just 12.4% of the combined population in the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson, they made up the majority — 56% — of applicants to the household grant program, Bugg said. 

The average payment was $750, and the vast majority of applicants used the funds to cover housing and food costs. In total, the CERF gave $4.56 million to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Helpline, funding more than 5,000 household requests, and helping more than 18,000 people, Wolfe said. 

One of those people was Rachel Gregory. With nowhere else to turn, she applied to the CERF and in April got $500. “I never have had to ask for help before,” she said. “But now with COVID, I needed it.”

 

“We have to trust them”

More than 5,000 applicants brought an enormous amount of data, and one of the conditions that Cville Community Cares had before partnering with the other four groups was that CACF would hold that data, not the city, not the county and not the United Way. 

Over the last three years, CACF, one of the largest community foundations in Virginia, has shifted from being a majority white organization to majority Black, with two Black women at its helm. With that, has come a fast and direct shift towards principles of racial and economic equity that have been implemented across the board, from its eliminating barriers to application process to doing intentional outreach and encouraging specific groups to apply for funding. 

Cville Community Cares’ request was an acknowledgement that the organization had, more than others, been pushing the greater region towards dismantling white supremacist structures and practices.

“The folks who are running the largest philanthropic endowments in the country are overwhelmingly white, and there is just no way that those foundations and funds are going to be able to have a lens into our Black and brown communities if they don’t look like, and come from, those communities,” said Christina Rivera, a Cville Community Cares member. 

In Charlottesville, data has been misused again and again. With more than 200 nonprofits in the area — only a handful led by people of color — there are frequent reports of white-led organizations using data to track and police applicants, telling them how they can and can’t use resources they have been given. 

The CERF, Bugg said, was deliberately set up to not do that. “It was important to us to respect the fact that people know best how to apply their resources in the ways that they need them the most,” Bugg said. “We have to not make people jump through five zillion hoops to get whatever it is they need, and we have to trust them. We have to get rid of notions that by giving you have the power to decide how somebody uses a resource.”

This devotion to human dignity, and CACF’s intentional listening to Black and low-income residents, is an example of what’s increasingly being referred to as “solidarity, not charity.” It’s perhaps most clearly seen in the structure of mutual aid, where groups of people look after one another. 

“The goal of mutual aid is to not wait around for governments, to not wait around for traditional nonprofits, and to take the lead and model what a supportive social system looks like,” said Ibby Han, a Cville Community Cares member. 

In the face of relentlessly racist and discriminatory practices, Black residents have been looking out for one another for centuries. Mutual aid is an old and revered practice in the greater Charlottesville region’s African American history from the Piedmont Industrial Land Improvement Co. that served as a shareholding, credit lending, community organizing and property purchasing organization to the myriad social clubs and fraternal and benevolent organizations, such as the Prince Hall Masons at Jefferson Lodge #20 or the Order of the Eastern Star. 

Formerly organized in March, the Cville Community Cares group points to the terror attacks of 2017 as its most recent origin point, when those who would come to form the group helped organize hundreds of activists, providing them with food, water and medical supplies and services.

“The relationships and trust that have been built over time is a large part of what continues to make this successful,” said Rivera, who is also a member of Congregate Cville, which works closely with Cville Community Cares. 

Over the last three years, members of what is now Cville Community Cares have held multiple community actions, many focused on providing aid and shelter to people seeking asylum, who, denied legal U.S. documents, are forced to remain hidden. 

“There are crises in our community all the time, it just might not be so apparent,” said Han. “I think of mutual aid as a muscle, it’s an infrastructure that we exercise whenever a need or a gap arises.” 

Their work would not be possible, said Han, if the group wasn’t guided directly by those most affected. Many predominantly white charity organizations and nonprofits are increasingly hiring people of color in an effort to get a more diverse-looking staff, but Han said it can’t stop there. “It’s not just a matter of hiring a representation from those communities, it’s about actually taking direction from them,” she said. 

Bugg agreed, saying there needs to be a fundamental shift in how people think about their roles. That power and control is at the center of the current structures. “Solidarity-not-charity really focuses on listening to the wisdom and experiences and suggestions of people who are most proximate to an issue,” Bugg said. “It’s really about recognizing that we are all interconnected, and that we’re all givers and receivers in the system.”

 

“Somebody really needs to do something”

All week, Jay James and the team at the Bridge Ministry have been interviewing men at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail (ACRJ), where African Americans are overrepresented and more at-risk for contracting COVID-19. They’re trying to find 25 to 40 men with non-violent and non-sexual charges who could be released into the nonprofit group’s care. For the last 25 years, the Bridge has operated an 18-month recovery and skills-training program for men just getting out of jail and prison on its 17-acre campus in Buckingham County. “With the threat of the virus, we’re working as hard as we can to get as many individuals out of that jail as possible, as soon as possible,” said James, the Bridge’s assistant director.

According to a study of the justice system released in January by the MGT Consulting Group, from 2014-2016 more than 51% of the people booked in ACRJ were African American men in Charlottesville, though they make up just 8.5% of the city’s population. That’s a rate of more than six times what is racially proportionate. Even more disproportionate is in Albemarle, where Black men make up 4.4% of the population, but 37.5% of the people booked into the ACRJ. That’s a rate of 8.5 times what is racially proportionate. 

The Bridge has an 86% success rate of men who complete its program never going back into jail or prison again, James said. Part of the success is the group’s staff, including founder William Washington, being able to listen to and relate to its program participants. They’ve battled with addiction; they’ve been incarcerated. 

“This should be one of the first places that is thought of, from what it offers these men to empower them to take back their families, to employ them with a guaranteed 100% chance of a job and then to get treatment for their addiction, to acquire new skills, to be on a 17.3 acre property that is secure, that is safe,” he said. “This definitely should be the norm because you can’t lose. You just can’t lose.”

The Bridge was able to do this with a grant from CACF. It was one of 28 it facilitated through the CERF, supporting nonprofits with a total of $847,195.70, according to Wolfe. The majority, 52.2%, went to funding housing needs, helping nearly 1,000 households, including $143,748 to cover two months of rent for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville’s Southwood residents, and $101,000 to cover a month’s rent for Piedmont Housing Alliance’s Friendship Court residents. Other grants paid for food distribution, social distancing and quarantine measures, prescriptions and telehealth services. “The criteria were very specific,” said Bugg. “They had to be filling an essential need to a vulnerable population that exceeded their current capacity to do so.”

Several weeks into the pandemic response, Myra Anderson was glued to the news. Every day, new catastrophes emerged, and it became immediately apparent that COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting Black people.

“I’m seeing people that look like me, look like my brothers, look like my aunties, dying from this in alarming numbers,” said Anderson.

DSC_4212

Myra Anderson has partnered with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and launched the Mask Up effort, which, with a grant from CACF through the CERF, has been distributing masks ever since.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

One night, she went to bed feeling helpless and frustrated that many Black people were having difficulty getting masks, a piece of equipment essential to their protection.

“Somebody really needs to do something,” she remembered thinking. “By the next morning, I’d resolved that perhaps that somebody was me.” She put out a call online for partners to help her distribute 5,000 masks to Black communities in the area, and the response was overwhelming. Soon she had partnered with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and launched the Mask Up effort, which, with a grant from CACF through the CERF, has been distributing masks ever since.

Anderson also leads the Black-centered, Brave Souls on Fire mental health resource group, which in May also received a CERF grant to distribute 300 “Bags of Hope,” each containing a face covering, stress ball, journal, fidget gadgets, Play-Doh, tea, snacks, gum, candy, self-care advice, adult coloring sheets, word searches, affirmations, humor and other local mental health resources. 

Bugg said many larger local nonprofits successfully received funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which freed CACF up to better leverage the CERF funds for grassroots, citizen-led and nontraditional groups, which the foundation intentionally kept in mind as it structured the grant’s application process to be as easy as possible, reducing potential barriers. 

 

“That means an all-capital-on-deck approach”

As CACF has been working to change the way financial supports are structured and how people access them, there is another key component to the equation of equity and massive system change: the wealthy. 

The year before he died, in 2010, John Kluge had a net worth of $6.5 billion. After his death, Kluge instructed that much of that money be given to health research efforts, scholarships and a foundation that had to spend its funds in 10 years, said his son John Kluge II. 

“Everything has been sold except for the medical companies that he funded to do research,” said Kluge, who inherited a piece of property and a last name. 

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said of the Kluge name. People assume he’s a millionaire, he said, but it also gives him access to people he might not otherwise have — specifically, wealthy people. “There are too many inactive participants,” said Kluge of wealthy, largely white, Virginians he knows. “They’re living in their bubble, or their world, and not engaging at all. We can’t afford to not engage. The challenges we’re facing at a very local level, and at a macro-global level, are complicated. They’re difficult. And they really require an all-hands-on-deck approach. And that means an all-capital-on-deck approach as well.”

White Virginia wealth tends to be quiet and reserved, he said. Maybe, he posited, this comes from an old notion of what’s polite, but the effect is that the wealth remains fractured and isolated, and it can’t be operationalized to support people’s needs in significant, large-scale, ways. Typically too, wealth is given to a university or major research initiative and not people on the ground who are actively supporting the most discriminated and oppressed. Kluge said that in order for system change to occur, people who are most impacted need to be in the driver’s seat. 

Bugg said traditional philanthropic models give a lot of control to donors rather than thinking about how communities themselves want to solve their own problems. Sometimes that control takes the form of parameters and rules, and sometimes control is exerted in the very idea, the very desire to create a nonprofit, for example, or the belief that they know best how to solve a problem — food insecurity, affordable housing, over-policing. In those cases, privilege and hubris can overshadow solving the actual problem.

“It’s not about having an idea and bringing it to a community to see if you can get them on board,” said Bugg. “It’s about the idea being generated in the community and then people leveraging their resources to support it.”

Towards the end of March, Kluge approached Shantell Bingham, the program director for the Food Justice Network, about partnering with Frontline Foods Charlottesville, which he co-founded, and World Central Kitchen to pay local restaurants to provide food to frontline workers. Initially, most of the restaurants that were tasked with preparing the meals were white-owned and white-run, but Bingham pressed him to require a 1-to-1 ratio of white and people of color-owned eateries. As of two weeks ago, white-owned restaurants still made up 72% of meal allocations, with 28% going to minority-owned restaurants, said Kluge. But that’s changing.

“This week, 60% of meals are going to minority-owned restaurants, and 40% to white-owned,” he said. “Next week, 70% of meals will be going to Black- or minority-owned restaurants, and we will keep that 70% as our baseline going forward.”

Kluge said it’s been enlightening to take direction from Bingham, and that he’s bringing this model to the national Frontline Foods board, which he recently joined.

“This is very much a work in progress, and we still have a lot of work yet to do,” he said. ‘Bias has showed up even within an effort that is intending to be equitable. We need to do better.”

And now, Kluge is hoping to help shape the beginnings of something currently being called the Virginia Funders Network. It hasn’t launched yet, but the goal is to create more ways for funders to learn from and collaborate with communities across the state as well as each other, while also learning how to better leverage state resources with national partners and advance impact-focused policies, said Kluge. His personal hope for the network is to use it to mobilize Virginia’s wealth for social justice causes, and as it forms he is pressing the network to bring more people from impacted communities to the table to help craft it. “There has to be a sustainable way to make sure that communities are part of the design and whatever is being created — that it’s part of the DNA from the very beginning. Community direction can’t be something that gets dropped in every once in a while.”

“There has to be a sustainable way to make sure communities are part of the design and whatever is being created — that it’s part of the DNA from the very beginning,” he said. “Community direction can’t be something that gets dropped in every once in a while.”

 

“This shows the extent of what’s possible”

DSC_0478

Rachel Gregory stands in Friendship Court.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

On May 8, after eight weeks and millions of dollars, CACF closed the Helpline and its household grant program. Thousands of people, including Rachel Gregory, were able to eat and support themselves and their families because of the fund. For the last three years, Gregory has been staying with her adult daughter and two grandchildren, but it’s crowded, and she’d like her own place so she can give them back their space. “I just want to move up a step, just one time,” she said. 

For Gregory, this experience has affirmed some of the things she knows about Charlottesville — that organizations who help people play favorites, giving certain people preferential treatment. 

“If you know somebody who knows somebody, then you’re OK,” she said. “But if you don’t know anybody, you’re screwed. And I’m one of those who knows nobody, so I’m just struggling by myself.”

Part of the reason for this reality, she said, is because nobody calls attention to it. People who get overlooked, or given the run-around, don’t have time to make a stand. “They say, ‘OK, I’ll just figure out another way,’” she said.

Bugg knows this reality, too. It’s part of why, before CACF shut down the Helpline, it reached out to elderly, undocumented, rural and people of color communities through groups like Sin Barreras, Cresciendo Juntos and the Buckingham Mutual Aid Collective to ensure that people who didn’t feel safe asking for funds, or who didn’t know about the program or who otherwise fell through the cracks, still got access to the fund. 

And though this most recent round of grants to nonprofits has finished, the CERF is still functional and taking donations. And Bugg said there is an upcoming round of grants CACF expects to announce in the next couple weeks that will focus on three main themes: “restore, sustain and build.” 

“Restore” for people and organizations that experienced emergencies and now need assistance getting back on their feet; “sustain” for those getting by but need support to keep going; and “build” for people and groups in a position to create new and better realities. If ever there was a time for system change, said Bugg, it’s now.

“I think we’ll all need to stretch our imaginations,” said Bugg, adding that she’d personally like to see a major investment in rural broadband connectivity and a reexamination of the employer-based healthcare system.

Since the beginning of the pandemic response, local criminal justice officials ended pretrial detentions and released 90 people, or about 15% of the ACRJ’s incarcerated population, to house arrest, according to C-Ville Weekly. The move was an attempt to reduce the risk of inmates contracting COVID-19. And so far, not only has it worked — no prisoners have gotten the disease — but none of those released have been charged with new criminal offenses. Also, officials waived the fees typically charged to people on house arrest for the ankle monitors, said Bugg.

It has many people, including Ibby Han with Cville Community Cares, posing the question: Why did we do this in the first place? “I think this shows the extent of what’s possible,” said Han. “This shows the arbitrary-ness of incarceration. It was so easy to release people. We have the opportunity to define what the new normal is now, and not go back to the status quo.”

 

Back to Determined.

Previous story: Determined to Stay

Next story: Determined to Be Free