By New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray
Our ability to remain positive and come together as a community has been tested in unimaginable ways over the last few months. But we can view the outcry over the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in black and brown
neighborhoods and the mass protests against racism and police brutality as
opportunities to energize and create communication between governments and communities.
New York City’s Task Force on Racial Inclusion & Equity is an unprecedented cross-agency body, connecting a diverse group of key leaders across 67 city agencies and offices. It has one goal: assist communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Many task force members are people of color, who were born in, worked in, or lived in the neighborhoods
targeted for assistance. Those communities were surveyed about their concerns and needs. That led to expedited plans that include expanded access to health care, including mental health; support for restaurants and employees; free meals; and summer opportunities for youth.
These initiatives represent just the beginning of our commitment.
Mental health was the top concern of 28 percent of survey respondents.
Their trauma is multi-layered: COVID- 19; economic instability; grief and
loss; witnessing abuse and death of people of color at the hands of those
charged with protecting their communities. This moment has created a
perfect storm of distress for black and brown people, who already navigate
everyday racism. In response, four months ahead of schedule we are expanding NYC Care — which guarantees health care for all New Yorkers
— to Manhattan and Queens, with additional providers for primary health
care and more opportunities to connect to mental health services.
The impact of our work will be multiplied many times by training community and faith-based organizations. They are trusted neighborhood figures and have a wide reach. Working with 270 such organizations, we expect to reach 10,000 people by the end of the year. They will be able to access virtual community sessions on mental health disaster response and coping, as well as interactive sessions incorporating an analysis of structural racism and focus on caring for yourself and loved ones.
“Bring Your Light: Faith and Mental Health in COVID-19,” a virtual event
I hosted in late May, also successfully brought together faith leaders, mental
health advocates, government leaders, and community leaders and members, locally and nationally. Faith leaders were experiencing anxiety and burn-out as they dealt with the suffering in their communities. The panel discussion focused on finding hope, building resiliency, and sharing resources to cope.
Participants included the Rev. Kyndra Frazier, associate pastor of First
Corinthian Baptist Church; Kay Warren, a mental health advocate and the co-founder of Saddleback Church (with campuses in California and
worldwide); and NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Deputy
Commissioner Dr. Torian Easterling. A Facebook Live event was a chance for the panel to take questions and offer words of advice and reflections. That conversation, viewed over 30,000 times, is available online.
I speak out these days as a co-chair of the Task Force and as an activist First
Lady. I am not an elected official but I am a public servant in every sense of
the word. I am also a black woman who has lived long enough to witness many cycles of racial violence and the official government response that followed.
Tragically, we have endured many such inflection points. The 1955 lynching
of Emmett Till; the 1963 slaying of Medgar Evers; the Birmingham, Ala.
church bombing that killed four little girls; the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and the 1992 acquittal of the police officers
whose beating of Rodney King was captured on film.
This moment in history feels different, for reasons I will leave to historians
and other analysts. On top of all the other pain, perhaps the George Floyd
cell-phone video was the tipping point in the onslaught of storm-churning
videos showing black men and women, boys, and girls, cut down by the police in recent years.
Somehow, our pain has hit home with a broader swath of the American
public this time. In 2020, the unprecedented number of people of color
in prominent government positions also makes us better situated to draw
on our resources, both spiritual and concrete, to make change. Now, advice
on enacting such change comes from a former U.S. President who is
New York City’s Task Force on Racial Inclusion & Equity strives to be a model for how this work can be done. Government by the people and for
the people means that our government leaders take a seat at many tables as
we fight the many monsters begat by structural racism. We are the community. The community is us. We are the change we need.