Opinion | Community crisis responses need to lead with equity

Diana Sieger

Diana Sieger is president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation

The impact of COVID-19 is harrowing. As the pandemic spreads through Michigan, it has highlighted existing disparities, making them glaringly obvious and impossible to ignore. It’s a troubling truth we don’t often enough look in the eye — that inequity based on race, social status and economic position have long been part of our daily lives. These inequities are intensified in times of crisis.   

Many sectors — philanthropy, health care, business and government included — have a role to play in building an equitable recovery for our communities. The time is now to come together to combat inequities and ensure the best outcomes. 

Take, for example, health disparities. Systemic and institutional racism have created greater pollution, food deserts and inadequate access to health care in communities of color, especially predominately black communities, leading to increased rates of chronic medical conditions. The daily discriminations compound, and, as highlighted in “Michigan’s coronavirus response must confront poverty and racism,” the long-term impact cannot be denied. 

Grand Rapids Community Foundation has a near-100 year history in west Michigan. We are a charitable organization that guides the philanthropy of individuals, families and businesses to meet our community’s most pressing needs through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and other entities. We are deliberate in our pursuit of racial, social and economic justice for everyone in our community. This crisis does not distract us from, but drives us deeper into, that purpose.   

We are actively collaborating with area foundations, nonprofits and business leaders to assess the immediate, near and long-term impacts of this crisis. One of the first steps was support of Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Kent County Coronavirus Response Fund, to meet immediate needs and support nonprofits serving vulnerable populations.

We are digging deep into our relationships, partnering with those most impacted by this crisis to co-create solutions. Early in this crisis, we heard about the need for multilingual translation and interpretation services. A partnership with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan brought critical information about minimizing exposure to and the spread of the virus to community members who do not speak or read English. 

In the midst of this crisis, our nonprofit partners are leading in innovative ways, and we are putting our trust in them. As their priorities are shifting, we are providing flexibility on existing grant partnerships and shifting with them. We had an existing, multiyear grant partnership with Start Garden, a business incubator, to create entrepreneurship opportunities for people of color and women. They recently created a relief program for local businesses, so we worked with them to divert resources and release funds early to bolster their efforts to respond to COVID-19. 

We are also inviting the power of collective giving through the Kent County COVID- 19 Recovery Fund, a fund of Grand Rapids Community Foundation. This fund will support organizations leading recovery efforts defined by and co-created with those disproportionately affected by COVID-19, especially communities of color. This includes nonprofits with limited access to financial support through traditional philanthropy, small business owners with little credit history and our friends and neighbors who are undocumented.  

Nationally, nearly 700 philanthropic organizations have signed the Council on Foundations’ COVID-19 Pledge expressing a commitment to support grant partners and hold philanthropy accountable to eight core principles as we work toward recovery in our communities. This is just the beginning. Each of our communities needs to adopt a partnership mindset, listening to and learning from others to ensure a collaborative and equitable response. As my colleague Isaiah Oliver, who leads the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, said recently, “Working together, we will prioritize our work with people at the margins ... We must be intentional and unapologetic about focusing on structural, long-term changes.”     

It is time to recognize the inequities in our backyards. This crisis has made it clear that our well-being and prosperity are linked to each other, and that while we are all inconvenienced or impacted, some of us are facing historic and compounding effects of injustice that have deadly consequences. 

I call on each person in our community to consider their response. Whether you give back or advocate through your time, talent, treasure or influence, you can affect change and shape our future. Together we will find a new resilience and resolve in our community that is rooted in equity. 

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Wed, 04/29/2020 - 9:13am

Foundations publicly praise themselves for the work that they do. Rarely do they tell the public what has gone wrong. It would be a praiseworthy change to see this occur. Perhaps having the poor and disadvantaged as part of the board teams would help. Community leaders are always in these roles. Teams think in terms of build this clinic or provide this service without asking about peripheral barriers and addressing that first. I remember a clinic that was built in the GR area for the poor and no one came for services. The leaders were puzzled. Why? Because it was in a location where no one had cars or any other access to it. Hopefully, this doesn't happen any more.