YAVILAH MCCOY is the CEO of DIMENSIONS Inc. in Boston. She has spent the past 20 years working in multi-faith communities and partnering with the Jewish community to engage issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
When the pandemic hit and our national shut-down began, I lost my previously healthy mother to “undetermined” causes in a rural North Carolina hospital. In late March, I flew on an empty plane to arrange a Jewish burial for her within 24 hours. I arrived in an Orthodox Jewish community that was spinning with the impact of rising death tolls, all while being prohibited from observing the usual Jewish rituals for burial. I also arrived at a hospital in the Black southern community where my mother lived and encountered doctors and nurses working without protective gear, without the capacity for testing and without any expectation that resources would be coming soon.
My assistant, who lives in Boston, found herself traveling to Michigan, one of the hardest hit communities of color in the country, to be a health advocate for her sister. Her sister had to be flown to a secondary hospital outside of Detroit in order to receive treatment and be placed on a ventilator while she battled Covid-19.
One of our project directors, who lives in a majority Black community in Washington, D.C., relocated to her father’s home in Connecticut because she and her wife had just given birth to a newborn and found themselves living in a community where one thousand cases of Covid-19 were reported in their neighborhood alone. Another of our project directors, ended up sheltering in place with her college-aged daughter and elderly mother in Oakland, terrified of what might happen to her family if they became ill with the limited options they currently have for healthcare.
As the CEO of a majority Jewish women of color and people of color led organization, I continue to learn how essential our work to expand racial equity in the world around us is to our very survival.
Among the communities of Jews of Color and people of color that Dimensions offers direct-service to, we encountered hourly wage earners who have been or are worried about being laid off. We encountered leaders who work in education and healthcare and who have been deemed “essential” to the American economy, but have not received adequate protections or a living wage. As areas of the country began to open, we have all felt the impact of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the disparate reality that as people across the country are now venturing outdoors, many people of color cannot do so without fear of being killed. As protests spread across the country, our people are holding the overwhelming disparity and emotional labor of needing to care for and protect our health and bodies from a deadly virus while also needing to protect our health and bodies from policing systems and systemic racism in America that is just as deadly and killing us rapidly.
During this time, a veil has been lifted, revealing just how commoditized and expendable the bodies of women of color are in a racialized system.
From my White Jewish colleagues, I have been heartened to hear acknowledgement of the depth of loss and strain across our institutions, along with the privileges that many of us have benefitted from.
When we speak of systemic inequality, this is what we mean: Many have enjoyed the ability to leave urban cities and shelter in second homes, while others continued to live in packed urban dwellings, traveling on subways and buses to keep our jobs at Whole Foods, Home Depot and Target. Many of us had the access and resources to restock our fridges in single trips to the grocery store while others worried about whether our paychecks would stretch to the next time stores would carry basic supplies like milk, flour, canned goods and toilet paper.
Many of us have been harried, sequestered from our regular routines—while others worry that the disruption to our hard-earned stability might lead to homelessness. Many have been challenged by having to live in close quarters, for extended periods of time, with parents, children, partners and family while not considering that for many people of color, domestically and globally, sharing living space with parents, grandparents and children has been their only option.
Additionally, many of us did not have to worry about having family members in the mass incarceration system who are not only living in close quarters with others who are sick, but facing life and death conditions in our prisons.
Some have bemoaned having to provide services to ourselves like haircuts and home-cleaning, while others have to risk our health and safety daily by continuing to drive for Uber and Amazon, work in restaurants, and operate as tellers, cashiers, nannies because the alternative would be losing jobs that we cannot live without.
I find myself wondering how many of my White colleagues and neighbors are still paying the hourly workers, many of whom are people of color, that have regularly taken care of their children, homes and businesses while all are sheltering in place? I find myself wondering why mostly immigrant cashiers of color have replaced all the white cashiers at my local grocery store, and whether their employment will last once safety conditions improve.
I wonder who is calculating all the dollars that they have not spent on gas, transportation, coffees, haircuts, and pedicures while sheltering in place—and who has made a commitment to gift this saved amount to essential workers of color and those on the margins who have become economically insecure during this crisis?
As JOC staff at Dimensions, we are women of color who have been listening to discussions among our Jewish colleagues about the stress of managing boards and programs and keeping staff engaged under virtual conditions. We have been sounding boards for people’s fears about returning staff, retaining staff, saving JCC s and Jewish camps and getting back to “normal” post re-opening. What we have experienced less of are crucial discussions to our survival regarding how we as a Jewish institutional community are addressing and will continue to address glaring disparities in the impact of Covid-19 across race and class differences among Jews. As Jewish professionals within Dimensions, we are Jews, and we are women and we are also people in gender non-binary Black and Brown bodies who are triply targeted by persistent inequities within our systems that target us daily and threaten our existence. As our community continues to consider good shifts in practice that we can adopt in the wake of the pandemic, we at Dimensions are wondering who will join us in addressing the impacts of racial injustice and inequality on Jews of Color?
The good news is that Dimensions is already working with Jews of Color and allies to develop resourceful, empowering and resilience-based programs that have the power, through direct service, to support JOC in saving their own lives within a system that has consistently left them behind.
We hope that what will change as we navigate forward through the next stage of this pandemic will be the number of partners in Jewish spaces who see our liberation as their liberation and who will work with us to deepen opportunities for wellness and greater equity for all.