Get Through Today, but Remake Tomorrow
By Michelle DePass
This week marks one month since Oregon announced its first presumptive case of COVID-19 and the crisis has only just begun.
There is little we can do as this pandemic plays out. Stay home and find ways to support those going to work to keep us healthy and safe. Let’s turn towards each other, not against. The speed and severity of this disease and the anxiety it has engendered is staggering: As we are physically separated from each other, fear of the virus has progressed in some quarters to fear of the “other”, fueling an alarming rise in anti-Asian hate. It’s never the right time to exacerbate bigotry.
Make no mistake. This pandemic is hitting hard. And it will hit some of us much harder than others. As the public health crisis becomes an economic shock, the failures in our social safety nets have been laid bare, disproportionately affecting the poor, immigrant families and people of color. Lack of paid sick leave has meant that some employees have had to choose between coming in to work sick, possibly with COVID-19, or staying at home without pay. Those who experience hunger and rely on social services now find those services overwhelmed. As the virus spreads through our unsanitary and overcrowded jails and prisons, imprisonment for even a misdemeanor offense may effectively result in a death sentence.
We are about to see a “pandemic inequality feedback loop” that will expose every bias we have embedded in our society. As a nation, we have always had deep cracks in our society that cause inequitable outcomes. Oregon is no different. Black children have among the lowest graduation rates from high school, women-run households are suffering under a wage gap that is compounded with each paycheck, and undocumented Latinx workers are still exploited for their labor. Native American tribes wrestle with the enduring trauma of termination. We, as a state, have walked a direct line from our history of racial exclusion and intolerance to the racial and class cleavages that this virus is laying bare.
That’s today, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow.
Fifteen years ago, I was a program officer at the Ford Foundation when hurricanes Katrina and Rita wrought unforgettable destruction in the Gulf Coast region. There, too, the emergency response and the long-term recovery efforts shone a bright light on inequality and racism in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a group of philanthropies and impacted Gulf residents recognized the need for an inclusive, bottom-up disaster response, and we created one that got resources to those hardest hit first.
In the face of an apathetic and ineffective federal response, the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health was a uniquely-structured entity that disbursed millions to organizations working across housing, arts and culture, worker rights and urban planning. It had one goal: rebuild stronger. Here in Oregon, we too can respond to this crisis in a way that does not leave our communities more inequitable than they were before the virus arrived.
We are fortunate, in Oregon, to have resourcefulness and community leadership to push through this moment together. Every leader I have talked to is figuring out how to get Oregon back on its feet as fast as possible. This means finding a new playbook and walking away from the old one forever. It means not just restarting the economy but reimagining it in ways that, when disaster strikes, we are all resilient.
At Meyer Memorial Trust we are doing our part. Last week, we announced that all current grants can be used for operating needs so each organization can best deploy its resources to help its community. And we banded together with other Oregon funders to launch response funds—MRG Foundation COVID Community Response Fund and the Oregon Community Recovery Fund—so those with good ideas for an inclusive and effective recovery can get going now.
As we look ahead, it’s time to ask ourselves: Where do we want to do things differently? And how can we center justice, equity and inclusion not as an afterthought but as a top priority? It is not only the right thing to do, but the best thing to do to protect us from threats like this in the future. Now that we have the chance, let’s do better moving forward.
As we pivot from self quarantine to solutions, let the past be over. Let’s make the invisible in society visible. We are living now with decisions we made before, but we can use this disruption to our advantage and live our values as a state tomorrow.
Michelle J. DePass, president and chief executive officer of the Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland, Ore., was a program officer from 2003 to 2009 in the Ford Foundation’s office of Economic Opportunity and Assets. This article appeared originally as an op-ed piece in The Oregonian/OregonLive on April 1.