Physically distant, yet socially connected: Building community amidst COVID-19

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On behalf of everyone at YW Boston, we extend our thoughts to our community during the current COVID-19 pandemic. We know this is a particularly difficult time for individuals with pre-existing health conditions, people who are economically vulnerable, and Asian Americans who may be subjected to increased racism and hostility. We consider the health and safety of our community to be our top priority. For this reason, YW Boston staff are working from home and we are developing plans to move forward with upcoming campaigns and programs remotely. Our Diversity & Inclusion services will be moving online and we have made sure that our entire community can digitally participate in our Stand Against Racism campaign this April.

We anticipate that new challenges will arise in the future and that this situation will heighten existing inequities in our communities. While many of us are experiencing uncertainty during this difficult time, it is as important as ever for us to continue working to eliminate racism in our communities. Studies show that ecological threats exacerbate people’s prejudice against perceived outsiders and economic downturns increase prejudice against people of color. When a majority of our population gives into this ‘Scarcity Mindset’, those with fewer resources are hit the hardest. We must stay diligent to ensure we (as individuals and communities) understand that if we work together, we can create more equitable outcomes. Even while we practice social distancing physically, we can still create community and support one another. Join me as we explore ways to support one another during this time and learn about ways to address current threats to equity and justice.

‘Cultural tightness’ will exacerbate inequities amidst COVID-19

As soon as Americans became worried about COVID-19, we saw an increase in physical and verbal assaults against Asians and Asian Americans. Even before there were recorded cases in the United States, Chinese-owned businesses experienced a sharp decline in customers. This has resulted in some Asian Americans feeling afraid to leave their homes for necessary grocery trips, for fear of being harassed for their ethnicity. It is up to all of us to put an end to this racist behavior.

As mentioned before, moments of crisis can exacerbate people’s already held prejudices. As the University of California, Berkeley reported, studies have found that “ecological threats such as pathogens, warfare, and resource scarcity predicted greater cultural tightness, and people in tighter cultures were more prejudiced against racial, national, sexual, and religious minorities.” ‘Cultural tightness’ refers to how rigid a culture’s norms are, and while it can be beneficial for us to all come together right now around social norms like social distancing, we cannot allow this to permit grasping tight to long-held prejudices. One way to prevent this is to reorient our biases. Rather than viewing others as the enemy during this pandemic, we must all value our collective, worldwide wellbeing.

We are also already seeing how this pandemic affects low-resource families. For instance, many part-time and hourly-wage workers’ hours are being cut dramatically, and many are being laid off. Others are cut off from the services they depend on. Due to shoppers’ hoarding of essential goods, some people who receive SNAP benefits are unable to find qualifying groceries to feed their family, and immunocompromised people with these benefits cannot go to the grocery store or purchase food online.

As we see this pandemic cause a widespread economic downturn, we need to recognize how structural racism causes more severe consequences for people of color. As labor economist Michelle Holder told The Nation, “It’s the old adage that if white America gets a cold, black folks get the flu,” she says. “All economic indicators support that.” Inequality persists during recessions, including the fact that “as unemployment rose in the last recession, the severity of workplace discrimination did, too”. Focusing on fighting structural and ideological racism is crucial to ensure this financial downturn will not be as catastrophic to families of color as the previous one.

Practice social distancing, but do not isolate yourself fully

Social distancing does not mean isolating ourselves from witnessing the effects of COVID-19 on our community. To help ensure your community does not fall into biased behavior, we all must connect with others. YW Boston staff, for instance, has been utilizing our office’s digital chat features to check in with each other and continue weekly employee activities, such as Friday Lunch & Learns, virtually. This is a time to invest in each other’s well-being as well as our own. In fact, many of us are referring to social distancing as ‘physical distancing,’ to be clear that we are not halting our social responsibilities to one another.

People are volunteering to buy groceries for immunocompromised individuals and many funds have been created to support industry workers with now-unreliable pay. You don’t have to step outside to provide support during this time. Our LeadBoston alumni network is currently sharing resources and will hold a video-chat discussion about how to support Greater Boston’s needs. Consider setting up a similar discussion with groups your own. You can also find resources and community with the Neighborhood Aid Network, which is connecting people across Massachusetts who need help with those who can provide it.

We can all be diligent about stopping the racism we see as some individuals ‘other’ people not like themselves, such as the racist attacks against Asian Americans. To combat this, we must share up-to-date, valid information and intervene if we witness verbal or physical assaults. We must also put an end to coded language that refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” because this only fuels bigotry and does nothing to ensure people’s safety.

One meaningful way you can engage your community against racism is to engage them in conversation. We are all facing hardships right now, but they vary from person to person. Engage people so that they can learn from one another or learn about issues beyond their scope. Facing History has created an excellent resource on speaking with young people about COVID-19 and racism, which can be adapted for people of any age. We can also be reaching out to those who may be exhibiting prejudiced behavior or hoarding, as they are likely responding to COVID-19 fears in unhelpful ways. By having open conversations about COVID-19 and all of the associated disparities, individuals will be more likely to band together and take collective action to curb inequitable outcomes.

One way to engage with your community: Stand Against Racism

To help you begin these conversations, we invite each of you to take part in our virtual Stand Against Racism campaign. Each April, YW Boston hosts the Stand Against Racism campaign, inspiring individuals, communities, and workplaces to take action to eliminate racism in Boston. The two main ways people can join are (1) by signing a digital pledge board, which asks participants what they will do to advance racial equity and (2) hosting conversations about race and racism based on content chosen by our guest curators.

We know that the important conversations this campaign inspires cannot wait, and that these conversations can help us build community and combat feelings of isolation. For this reason, YW Boston’s 2020 Stand Against Racism campaign will be taking place online.

Learn more and sign up on our Stand Against Racism registration page. I hope that you find this campaign to be a resource to your community as we work through these difficult times together.


About YW Boston

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and youth programming, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed.