Joseph Young of New Haven, left, stands with demonstrators on the steps of the New Haven Police Department Headquarters. Ryan Caron King | CT Public Radio
Erik Clemons

Black and brown communities have been in crisis for a long time. So it would stand to reason that even in a moment when we are experiencing the largest pandemic in a century, our community is having to break quarantine to protect their rights and prove the sanctity of their lives.

When people have to put their bodies in harm’s way to demand their safety, it is time for our community and state leaders to stand with any support we can offer.

From the beginning of this crisis, I knew our communities would be the hardest hit. I knew we would be overlooked and neglected and left to navigate a healthcare system that for many is hard to understand and filled with seemingly unconquerable racial biases. Even as committed as our hardworking healthcare professionals have been in New Haven, we know that the disparities of this pandemic rest most heavily on low-income, black and brown communities.

What was not immediately obvious was that we would be forced to negotiate a public health crisis while also grieving the recent assaults on the black community.

Unfortunately, what moments like these make abundantly clear is that we are up against two pandemics: COVID-19 and poverty. And since we know poverty is the weapon of racism, black and brown communities have an uphill battle to be healthy, well, and safe during this time.

When we started the Crisis Relief Fund at ConnCAT in April, it was with the belief that communities can speak for themselves and practice their autonomy to meet their needs. So we committed to raising $600,000 to give directly to families in the Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods through the disbursement of preloaded Visa gift cards. Now, as I grieve the deaths of black people throughout the country at the hands of police, and watch our community grieve out loud in the form of protests and civil disobedience, I know there is so much more to do to support and sustain black and brown communities.

The Crisis Relief Fund was just one avenue to financially assist families in the Dixwell and Newhallville communities combating newly-formed, and forever present, systematic effects of racism in these areas. The challenges we face in fighting oppression have not been invented by this pandemic, only amplified by it. To holistically analyze the solutions for this crisis, we must recognize that the pandemic of poverty is an ever-present barrier in the fight for justice. The multifaceted nature of systematic racism in these communities can only be combated by equally far-reaching, concerted efforts towards a common goal reliant on intersectionality and justice.

Our communities have been disproportionately affected by both pandemics, and though the relief fund plays a role, nothing can immediately alleviate the grief to come.

The war on poverty will outlast the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is yet another reason why the work we are doing cannot stop, even past our goals. The solutions to issues like poverty cannot be stagnant. They must be constantly at the helm of what marginalized communities need the most.

As leaders in the community, we have a duty to utilize the lessons learned in this moment to force the change we know will lead to a more just world. Incrementalism is no longer acceptable and the time for comprising messaging has passed.

Watching New Haven leaders take to the streets this weekend gave me immense hope, as they took up physical space to stand in solidarity with actions nationwide and denounce the treatment of black people by police. I am hopeful for what the youth are bringing to this fight for justice, and I am eager to be a partner in that work.

Since the Crisis Relief Fund was announced in April, we have raised about $550,000 that will deliver direct financial support to communities in Dixwell and Newhallville. Through our community’s support and the generous gifts from larger donors, we are determined to support families experiencing crippling needs, while our city’s organizers take up the mantle of protecting their rights.

The work we are doing during this crisis should not be confined to COVID-19. Instead, it should embody the spirit of justice to combat the poverty and racism that has perpetually struck our most marginalized communities. As we move forward, fighting through protest, mutual aid, direct financial assistance, and any other role we can play, we must be as unrelenting as oppression is, so our commitment to justice can dissolve it.

Erik Clemons is President and CEO of ConnCAT in New Haven.

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