Executive Director of Austin Coming Together Darnell Shields speaks with Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot at a community event hosted by the Adams and Austin Block Clubs in July 2020. Photo by Heidi Zeiger

After reports in April showed the effects of COVID-19 were heightened in minority communities, Mayor Lightfoot formed a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT). This collective effort aimed to address the racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality outcomes, while also looking at the underlying causes behind why these communities are at the greatest risk. At first, the effort focused on three communities where cases were most prevalent: Austin, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore.  

“The key to the success of the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team is that multiple stakeholders, most especially long standing community leaders, are sitting at the same table together, looking at the data, following community leaders’ insights to co-design solutions, and pulling together city, philanthropic, and other resources to take action,” said Sybil Madison, Deputy Mayor of Education and Human Rights for the City of Chicago. 

West Side United, a coalition of area health institutions whose goal is to address the death gap that exists between Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods and downtown, was brought in as a co-convenor for the RERRT initiatives. They quickly became an instrumental partner due to expertise in gathering data and understanding the area’s health factors.

The RERRT learned from and adopted several aspects of West Side United’s working model, one of them being the importance of community partnership. “When we see success is when we galvanize, empower, and arm community leaders as contributors to the solutions,” said Ayesha Jaco, Executive Director of West Side United.

That is why the RERRT brought on a trusted community organization as an anchor partner in each target area. Austin Coming Together (ACT) was identified as the lead to help develop and implement strategies to meet the need in Austin. With healthcare services already limited, an early priority became creating access to free COVID-19 testing. Through RERRT efforts, five mobile testing sites were established in Austin alone. 

Other RERRT goals include implementing contact tracing, and increasing distribution of PPE. Through donations, as well as by working with manufacturers to switch to producing masks, the RERRT was able to secure thousands of PPE supplies that continues to be distributed through localized efforts led by community partners.

To combat the growing food insecurity, the RERRT launched a series of pop-up food pantries. In partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the RERRT worked with local community-based organizations like ACT to schedule distribution days where food boxes of meat, produce, and dry goods have been given to more than 9,000 households so far.

Concentrating on connection

As education moved online, inconsistent or unavailable access to the internet caused already vulnerable students to fall even farther behind. “We felt that digital inequities were going to deepen already wide achievement gaps if we didn’t act quickly,” said Daniel Anello, Chief Executive Officer at Kids First Chicago.

Just months ago, Kids First Chicago released research that found Austin had the City’s largest connectivity gaps. Only one in three households here have internet access.

Inspired by early conversations with ACT, Kids First Chicago established a sponsored internet services program for high-need communities and families. This concept led to Chicago Connected, a groundbreaking multi-year public-private partnership to close Chicago’s digital divide and ensure that Chicago Public Schools students have access to the internet and remote learning. It is the latest of its scale and longest in duration in the nation, with 100,000 students getting free internet access in Year One.

ACT was selected as the primary lead agency in Austin for Chicago Connected. Additionally, A Better Chicago has also granted ACT funding to facilitate a similar effort that will help to cover families not eligible through CPS.

The real public health crisis

Since the RERRT began, COVID-19 deaths in the hardest hit areas like Austin are more than 20 times higher. Recently, deaths in the Latinx community have also increased, so the City added Marshall Square, Belmont-Cragin, and Little Village to the neighborhoods targeted by the RERRT. 

We now can see the reasons behind why COVID-19 has ravaged these neighborhoods.

Policies rooted in structural racism do not allow Black and Brown communities to thrive. As David Ansell, MD, MPH, Senior Vice President for Community Health Equity at Rush University Medical Center summarized, “concentrated poverty is killing people.” 

According to an open letter to the Chicago community written by more than three dozen healthcare organizations that was released in June, systemic racism is a public health crisis.

Collectively, the group of federally qualified health centers, safety-net hospitals and major academic medical centers care for more than 8 million patients across the Chicago area. As part of the RERRT, the group hopes to see bold steps to fulfill a shared responsibility to serve communities equitably.

Breaking the pattern

Partnerships like the ones we’ve described create a platform for a real connection between government and community to be formed. These connections are creating viable opportunities and a willingness to be proactive.

But in order to break the patterns of disenfranchisement and make sure we build on lessons learned, we must translate our responsive solutions into a solid framework. And we must do it in collaboration with the community. 

By Alicia Plomin
Marketing & Development Manager, Austin Coming Together