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We are in this together – but not quite

May 27, 2020   |   Refugio "Cuco" Rodriguez

As the nation’s only state-based gun violence prevention fund, the Hope and Heal Fund is extremely concerned with the current and long-lasting impact of COVID-19 on communities disproportionately impacted by gun violence. As a  racial equity organization, we address issues of racial disparities and responses as they relate to communities of color impacted by gun violence. As a part of this framework, we know racism and the inequities it creates are major root causes of gun violence. Racism is inextricably connected to gun violence and cannot be ignored if we are to successfully reduce the incidences of injuries, trauma, and deaths as a result of gun violence. Bluntly put, the internalization of oppression and trauma, specifically trauma originating from institutional racism when unresolved emanates laterally and impacts loved ones and communities. The COVID-19 experience is but another traumatic experience that is part of the legacy of racism.

At first glance, COVID-19 is seen as an equalizing force that has plagued every country and has cut across all facets of society. The mantra “we are all in this together,” has become a unifying theme across the United States. Although true in some respects, we clearly see pre-existing conditions, in terms of health and economic opportunity, magnify the impact of any crisis for all low-income communities but more so for those of color.  While it is true that we are all in this together, the “this” looks very different for some communities due to pre-existing inequities that relegate vastly different experiences, care, services, support, and even outcomes for people.

COVID-19 is providing the majority in this country with a glimpse of everyday existence and challenges for our most marginalized population. Much like the Great Recession of 2008-2009, government organizations are providing economic support to families, businesses and large corporations. Not lost on people of color is the ease in which economic support is provided for the privileged majority. The differential response during this crisis brings into focus prevailing narratives that cast marginalized individuals and communities as less deserving of resources and responses during a crisis.

The current response from government agencies, philanthropy, and other organizations in many ways highlights what should occur during a crisis in this country–but it’s missing a racially equitable approach. While many yearn for “going back to normal”, we must not ignore that normal for people of color was still a struggle for daily economic survival before COVID-19.  As nonprofit and philanthropic organizations in the gun violence prevention field, it is our duty to use the lessons we are learning from this global pandemic and prepare for a more just, equitable, and fair post-COVID-19 reality.

Specifically, we must be prepared to deal with the impact of:

  • An explosive increase in gun sales across the United States during the pandemic – leading to lethal means access in homes and subsequently easier gun access in urban communities
  • High unemployment rates – which already are leading to higher rates of stress, depression and could lead to increases in suicides and community violence
  • Increasingly higher incidents of domestic violence
  • Increased rates of violence and discrimination against people and communities of color

The COVID-19 pandemic should serve as an opportunity for all nonprofit and philanthropic organizations to re-evaluate equity internally. If we can finally agree racism is a major root cause of many issues which lead to negative health outcomes for communities of color, then we should have a high degree of race equity expertise across all levels of an organization. At the same time, we must move beyond just the admonishment of obvious racist acts by a group or individuals and we must embody our anti-racist positions within our work and within our practices to identify systems of oppression. If we are all truly in this together, these changes must extend beyond the current crisis.

Too often, organizations are stifled by an uneasiness to call out racism because they lack the expertise to offer viable solutions that appropriately address racial inequality.  Further complicating these critical challenges is our continued reliance on existing staff to embed race equity into our organization, despite many staffers being ill-equipped to do so. Do we have the needed level of expertise on staff, in our leadership, and on our board of directors? How does racial equity live and thrive within our mission, our vision, our hiring practices, and among other day-to-day practices?

As organizations invested in improving the lives of those most marginalized, we must endeavor to do so in a thoughtful and impactful way. We must change the conditions that often require us to develop short-term interventions to address a crisis in the community. To do so, we must tackle the legacy of racism and trauma that adversely affect communities of color.

For philanthropic and other organizations engaged in gun violence reduction work, race equity expertise is imperative due to the complexity of the issue. When gun violence reduction efforts and policies lack an in-depth race equity lens, they run the risk of perpetuating inequity and or prescribing solutions to an issue with a very limited depth of understanding. The absence of this critical perspective and expertise leads to unintended consequences that too often result in the criminalization of people of color. As we prepare to address the impending gun violence issues post-COVID-19, we must ensure that our organizations are equipped to comprehend and appreciate the implications of race. We must ensure that our intended solutions do not exacerbate situations for people of color. To achieve this we can take some first steps and begin by ensuring that in-depth race equity experience becomes a core competency that we require from all of our “qualified job candidates.” Moreover, we must move beyond just the idea of “do no harm” to how policies and systems change can include, empower and lift up communities of color. This must become our guiding principle in all of our work.

Hope and Heal Fund recognizes the challenge; that real and meaningful change requires a reflective act and the sincere acknowledgment that we may not like what we see in our own organizations. If racial equity is important to our organization, we must embody equity, we must value and possess that level of expertise across our organization.

Refugio “Cuco” Rodriguez is the Program Officer of the Hope and Heal Fund, a philanthropy working to end gun violence in California.

Photo Credit: Gerardo Huitrón