Reimagining equity post-COVID-19: Takeaways from our 2020 Women on the Rise

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On Wednesday, June 3rd, Boston’s women City Councilors joined YW Boston for a conversation about envisioning a better, more equitable Boston. The webinar, “Women on the Rise: Reimagining Equity Post-COVID-19″ welcomed almost six-hundred attendees.

As recent events such as the tragic killing of George Floyd have confirmed, we are currently facing two interconnected pandemics: COVID-19 and racism, and more specifically, anti-Blackness. We have the opportunity, and a responsibility, to envision a better and more equitable Boston. This is important for communities of color, especially women of color, who have primarily experienced these crises at the frontlines. Boston’s eight city councilwomen, who are each dedicated to creating a more equitable city, joined us to discuss moving forward.

The conversation included: 

  • Kenzie Bok, Councilor of District 8 
  • Liz Breadon, Councilor of District 9 
  • Andrea Campbell, Councilor of District 4 
  • Lydia Edwards, Councilor of District 1 
  • Annissa Essaibi-George, Councilor At-Large 
  • Kim Janey, City Council President and Councilor of District 7 
  • Julia Mejia, Councilor At-Large 
  • Michelle Wu, Councilor At-Large 

Beth Chandler, YW Boston’s President and CEO, moderated the discussion. Anna Steiger, Vice President in Regional and Community Outreach at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, provided opening remarks. 

The eight councilwomen spoke candidly about the issues facing our city today. They spoke from the heart about the pain they are feeling both in response to the deaths of Black individuals at the hands of police and because of the disparities COVID-19 has laid clear. The councilwomen explained what they are working to address while in office, and what they believe their responsibility is in creating a more equitable Boston. Learn more from our recording of the webinar and our main takeaways, below: 

Captions are available for this video. To activate closed captioning, please start the video and select the icon labeled “CC” at the bottom-right corner.

Our key takeaways from “Women on the Rise: Reimagining Equity Post-COVID-19″: 

1. The councilwomen began the conversation by reflecting on recent acts of police violence.

City Council President Kim Janey opened the conversation on Wednesday, June 3rd by sharing that their city council meeting that day had opened with an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence to reflect on George Floyd’s life and death. She went on to share that, “We know that [George Floyd’s] story is all-too familiar. Many people say ‘This is new. This is different.’ For many of us, this has been going on for far too long. For 400 years in one form or another in terms of violence against Black people. We have the responsibility to say ‘No more.’ […] We have a system in place, White supremacy, which elevates a few at expense of all others and it’s time that we tear that down.”

A number of councilors shared their experiences of pain and grief. Councilor Andrea Campbell shared she would be emotional during the conversation, but she found it important to speak about these issues, particularly to those in the audience who are White. Councilor Campbell stated that she has been thinking about her sons and how George Floyd’s death is a critical moment for them to learn about systemic racism and to determine their own response. As she shared, “I have been finding it very difficult to have some conversations with some folks who don’t look like me, who are White, who are supposed to be allies and accomplices in this work, who are not able to hold up the mirror and say ‘What biases do I hold in my heart? How am I going to work to become an anti-racist? How am I going to work to transform systems?'” She went on to share that if people do not put in the time to understand the definitions of systemic racism and white privilege, we “are bound to continue to perpetuate inequities in all of the systems we operate.”

2. The impacts of police violence and COVID-19 on Black and brown communities are interconnected.

Given recent high-profile police murders of Black individuals, YW Boston chose to expand this conversation beyond COVID-19. As Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George explained, “This conversation was supposed to be about the challenges around this pandemic and COVID-19, but how fascinating it is that the challenges of dealing with the pandemic and our response as a city and the work we need to do as a state, a city, and a nation, is interchangeable with the conversation around the incidents of police brutality, around the conversation of institutional racism. Those two conversations in so many ways have exposed the real experiences that residents have had for their lifetimes. In a backward way, the successes we’ve seen in the pandemic piece have been the exposures of the vulnerabilities across our system.”

A number of the councilors used the term ‘crisis’ to not just explain the COVID-19 pandemic, but systemic racism, too. We have to see that systemic racism is a crisis, too. For example, as Councilor Lydia Edwards spoke on the issue of evictions, “In the book Evicted, it states that when Black men get locked up and locked in, Black women get locked out. The evictions in this crisis is only going to be a pouring of gasoline on the issue we have in the pandemic of racism.”

3. COVID-19 has added further urgency to the councilwomen’s objectives.

As many of the councilors spoke about, the COVID-19 pandemic has made their work toward equity even more pressing. Moderator Beth Chandler asked the newest councilors about how their work has evolved, given that the pandemic hit during their first few months in office. Councilor Kenzie Bok, who has been a long-term advocate for affordable housing, explained “There is nothing like a pandemic to force the point that it is not acceptable for people to not having housing […] When I think about what it means for us to rebuild more equitably as a society, I think of the systems we have, whether for housing, a good education, access to food, where when people don’t get those things, we talk about them slipping through the cracks. We talk about a social safety net but I think of it as a bowl. That is what our society is meant to be — a bowl that is meant to hold folks. […] What you see become plain is we haven’t built a bowl. We have built a sieve. The holes are there. They are intentional. […] The pandemic is showing us the way our systems are meant to be sieves, not bowls. That, too me, is the place you need to start when changing things.”

Councilor Julia Mejia, a former community organizer, spoke about running for city council with the goal of increasing community engagement in her community and breaking down barriers to engagement. The pandemic has both given her new avenues to increase engagement, as well as brought new issues to light. As Councilor Mejia explained, “I didn’t think COVID-19 would expedite this even further in terms of access moving to Zoom land. It has allowed more people to tune in and listen to public hearings and started creating a different type of dialogue. In terms of issues, that I’ve learned during COVID-19, are issues around food insecurity and language access. When information would come out, it would come out first in English-only and then it was translated into different languages. I didn’t have this understanding of engagement to this depth until this happened. […] Most importantly, when I think about language, it is not just about translation interpretation. It is really about the level of cultural competency and the way the information is coming out. People were talking about ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’. Around my way, we don’t talk like that, so really about helping the city and agencies and people engaging to be able to speak in ways that we would understand it.”

4. It is a responsibility of our leaders to act right now. To not would be to accept failure.

All of the councilors spoke about their responsibility on the council to address these systemic issues. As Councilor Michelle Wu spoke of in response to recent acts of police violence, “There are specific actions we could take tomorrow — not just at the federal level, not just at the state level, but at the city level. Let us remember that it is in our hands. This anger and hurt and momentum and indignation we feel right now needs to be channeled into votes, into legislation, into budgets. […] There’s much more to do in terms of ending systemic oppression. There are many things on our plate at City Council and at the city level that could make a difference immediately for Black families.”

When Beth Chandler asked the councilors to reflect on the council’s success thus far, in regards to the pandemic, Councilor Lydia Edwards shared, “It is hard to accept success in the middle of a storm. We barely have time to reflect. I am not saying we aren’t doing things right, but that success is not the right word right now. We will know when we pause and look back and see. […] COVID-19 is the opportunity to reset. That’s what we have right now, one of the greatest opportunities in generations to reset and to use this is as a reason to reset. To say ‘We cannot continue the way we were at all.’ […] We have been forced to sit down. The question for us, as a city, is how we are going to stand up and how we are going to reflect on this moment. […]” She spoke to her fellow councilors about the council’s responsibility, stating “If by December 31, 2020, we have not passed certain ordinances, […] there is no success, there is no point in being proud of ourselves getting through COVID. We should all be embarrassed. I am talking to my colleagues directly. This is the call of our generation and this is the call we cannot pass.”

5. Resiliency should be our primary focus moving forward.

All of the councilors spoke about the many issues exacerbated by the pandemic: housing, food insecurity, education inequities, and more. While they recognized that they need to address the symptoms of the pandemic, they must go beyond this band-aid. They must focus on the future in order to ensure that next time a crisis hits, our communities and our leaders do not face these same disparities.

Councilor Andrea Campbell spoke specifically about what it means to increase resiliency in Boston. As she asked, “The question is ‘Are we going to be more intentional now in respects to communities of color?'” Councilor Campbell spoke about how the city created the position of Chief Resilience Officer whose job it is to see the crises that may come. Continuing, she shared, “We have seen other situations across this country, whether natural or unnatural, where we have seen communities of color were hit hard [and asked] ‘What are we going to do for communities of color to make them more resilient?’ We had the opportunity to do just that. […] Now we have the opportunity to get it right. One way of doing this is to ensure right here in the City of Boston that office is invested in.” Councilor Campbell encouraged individuals to ensure that the offices of resiliency in their institutions are funded. This may include investing in racial equity training. She acknowledged that such training can be difficult work, but a great place to put energy in the fight of racial equity.

A number of councilwomen spoke about the importance of learning about topics of race and racism and supporting anti-racist work in our institutions. YW Boston partners with organizations looking to focus on racial and gender equity, including educational institutions, which were mentioned during the webinar. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey. Click here to learn more about InclusionBoston and request your free consultation.

Thank you to the Boston City Councilwomen for being open, honest, and inspiring during this conversation. We also thank everyone who joined us.

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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. 

During this time, YW Boston is working to provide organizations with digital workshops and resources to help them better understand the challenges faced by their employees. As part of that work, we are helping organizations become socially connected while staying physically distant. For more information, please contact Sheera Bornstein at sbornstein@ywboston.org.