Four Lessons to Ensure an Equitable Recovery from the Pandemic in the DC Region


Johanna Williams (R), COVID-19 food coordinator for Martha's Table, gets a hug from 6-year-old Raniyah Williams during the distribution of free hot meals donated by the Clyde's Restaurant Group during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many people out of work and unable to reach healthy food, April 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. Martha's Table, a nonprofit organization that works to help underserved communities, is extending until April 24 its COVID-19 emergency response of financial and food support for people in need, including a weekly distribution of 6,570 bags of groceries at its public food sites in Southeast Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequities in the DC area and nationwide, members of the Urban–Greater DC team convened with neighbors and residents of the greater DC region to reflect on lessons learned from the pandemic and the national movement for racial justice sweeping our country and our region. Our hope was, even in the midst of the pandemic’s devastating disparities, to answer a critical question: What would it take to imagine a more equitable revitalization of the region we call home?

In January, we launched an event series with that goal in mind, bringing together local changemakers working on the ground and Urban experts to highlight the intersectionality of race and issues like housing, health, and the COVID-19 pandemic in the DC region. These conversations explored the policies and programs needed to support communities in the short term, and participants discussed how we might realize a more equitable greater DC region in a post-COVID-19 world. As one panelist, George Jones, chief executive officer of Bread for the City, noted, “The pandemic has laid bare a second public health crisis: the full impact of systemic racism.”

From this series of panels, we walked away with four foundational themes necessary for any discussion of revitalizing and reimagining the greater DC region after COVID-19.

1. Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic must lead with racial equity.

At our event on vaccine equity, George Jones explained that any recovery efforts must be intentionally designed to counteract the institutional barriers that led to racial disparities before and during the pandemic. Amber Hewitt, chief equity officer for DC, said, “When we look at the disparities in COVID-19 health outcomes, they stem from health inequities that are rooted in systemic and unjust social and economic policies.… We have to widen our lens when it comes to health equity and racial equity.”

And at the cancelling rent event, the conversation focused on local renters’ hardships. Citlalli Velasquez, senior organizer for the DC Latino Economic Development Center, said, “Tenants have been forced to organize and fight tooth and nail because simply the law was not enough to protect tenants, particularly Black and brown tenants who have been essential workers during the pandemic and having to choose between food and shelter.” For recovery efforts to help those most affected by the pandemic, a commitment to racial equity and eliminating disparities must be at the forefront.

2. An equitable framework for recovery must be grounded in data.

In her work at Urban, Jennifer M. Haley has examined the data exposing inequities in vaccine delivery. Analysis of demographic vaccine data from researchers in the region led to increased public and media attention on these inequities, leading to increased local vaccination efforts. During the panel on vaccine equity, Haley also highlighted the need for more data to fully understand the barriers and how best to counteract them. Beyond closing gaps in vaccination rates, data can and should be pivotal in informing recovery policies and programs to address other inequities.

During the defunding the police event, Jesse Jannetta, senior policy fellow at Urban, used data to underscore how gross racial disproportionality is a fundamental fact in policing in the region and across the US. He said, “Simply put, Black and brown people, and particularly Black and Indigenous people in the United States and in the [DC area]… are stopped more, they are arrested more, and they’re subject to more police force of levels up to and including lethal force.”

These examples highlight how data can be used to identify existing inequities and to inform efforts to eliminate them as part of comprehensive framework for equitable recovery.

3. A diverse group of community stakeholders must lead recovery efforts.

Building a recovery framework must include a multitude of community stakeholders, including residents, political officials, policymakers, community-based organizations, advocates, and activists. Ashanti Martinez, an organizer for the PG Changemakers Coalition, shared the organization’s strategies to engage community members and better understand their needs, which helped the group develop more comprehensive and effective advocacy. Across the event series, we found discussions were enriched and the solutions made more innovative because the “tables” we convened brought together community advocates and leaders, policymakers, and Urban experts. By pointing recovery resources toward more community-engaged methods, policymakers can create better informed, more equitable programs.

4. Recovery must happen at the systems level with regional approaches to change.

Given the magnitude of the disparities in the pandemic’s devastation, solutions must happen at the systems level to correct inequities in existing policy and community structures. Tiffany Ward, chief equity officer for Montgomery County, highlighted how the pandemic has surfaced inequities in communities, which has made it easier for local leaders to make the case for increased support to long-neglected communities. And in the DC statehood event, Erica Williams from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute explained how granting DC statehood could give the city the power to correct laws that have disproportionately affected residents of color and collect funding to address economic and health inequities.

To address housing instability specifically, Jheanelle Wilkins, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, called for immediate action to address not only the current need but also effects of the prior housing crisis and said, “We cannot accept anything less than robust and bold legislation and funding.” At other panels, the need for robust and systemic approaches to change was reiterated.

We are so thankful for all the local changemakers who graciously gave us their time and shared their thoughts and knowledge. These discussions created a strong foundation for understanding the necessary methods to ensure we build a more equitable and resilient region as we look to a world after the COVID-19 pandemic. With this foundation, we, as researchers, practitioners, neighbors, and residents, can all work—collectively and more effectively—toward an equitable recovery in the greater DC region.

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