The Color of COVID-19 in Cambridge

By Ayesha Wilson and Emily Irving

By now it should be very clear. COVID-19 is not the great equalizer. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the systemic inequity that has defined American society since it stole the very land under itself. This is no less true at the local level than at the national. Since its founding in 1891, the YWCA Cambridge has been committed to serving the needs of the Cambridge community. We understand that powerful change starts at the local level, and here in Cambridge, the virus has shown a harsh light on the deep inequality that has always festered beneath the city’s veneer of progressive politics. We must do better.

Let’s start with the numbers. The case rate among black residents (168 per 10,000) in Cambridge is nearly triple that of white residents (60 per 10,000). While black residents make up only 11% of the total population in Cambridge, they account for 20% of the city’s COVID mortalities. The neighborhoods with the three highest rates of infection are the Port, Wellington-Harrington, and East Cambridge, followed closely by North Cambridge and Cambridge Highlands, areas which represent a disproportionate amount of the city’s black and brown residents. The higher rates of COVID-19 in these areas are only the latest chapter in a long history of underinvestment and oppression. These same neighborhoods were once classified as “Hazardous” under the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining policies, a label given to neighborhoods “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it.” Without public support for and investment in the expansion of affordable housing and equitable housing policy in Cambridge, housing inequity will continue to harm the city’s black and brown communities. 

COVID-19 case rates by neighborhood
Source: Cambridge COVID-19 Data Center, accessed June 4 2020
Redlining map of Cambridge, MA
Source: Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed June 4, 2020.

Existing inequalities in Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) have also been intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning requires that students have, at minimum, strong internet and a computer available for their personal use during the day. Students also need space to learn and do homework within their home, preferably one free of noise and distractions. Many students in Cambridge do not have these basic resources to support remote learning until Cambridge Public Schools did the inevitable and expanded educational resources beyond the physical school building, through the distribution of hotspots and laptops. Without an investment in city-wide broadband, access to public education will remain contingent on the uneven resources of individual households. And because the systematic exclusion of black families from wealth creation in the United States means that economic inequality maps onto racial lines, black students in Cambridge will suffer disproportionately from unequal access to distance learning. 

Let’s say it one more time. Racial inequality existed in Cambridge long before COVID and will not be solved with a vaccine. At the same time, COVID-19 represents an opportunity to acknowledge this inequity and to commit to meaningful action and policy change at the local level. This approach is in line with the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. We end this article with a call to take local action:

Ayesha Wilson and Emily Irving are members of the
YWCA Cambridge Board of Directors

Girls Only Leadership Development

This past May, thirteen (13) junior high school girls, their parents, mentors, YWCA Cambridge staff, and City of Cambridge officials gathered together in city hall to celebrate the conclusion of yet another successful semester of the Girls Only Leadership Development (GOLD) program.  

We spent seven (7) months exploring a variety of  topics, from self-defense to financial literacy to the making of a podcast. The young women of GOLD culminated their experiences with a graduation ceremony, broadcasting the podcast they’d created during their workshops with the American Repertory Theatre.

With their certificates of completion in hand, they were invited on stage to shake hands with  YWCA Cambridge Executive Director Eva Martin Blythe, Councilwoman Simmons, and GOLD Coordinator Amanda Okaka.  After all of the well wishes, were completed, one young woman made her way over to the microphone, took a deep breath, and exhaled a small “thank you” before running off stage; many of the girls in the program giggled to themselves, but all of them also nodded knowingly.

In speaking with the GOLD participants, it becomes apparent that the exchange during the closing ceremony was indicative of many of their experiences. Young women participating in GOLD are invited, encouraged and supported to step out of their comfort zones; whether it’s in the form of public speaking or learning about taxes, they learn to do something that challenges their vision of who they are and what they’re capable of doing or becoming.  One participant described her experience when remarking on her favorite workshop- self-defense, saying “it felt weird and new but I also felt a little more safe and experienced after.” GOLD teaches young girls not only to be OK with a healthy dose of discomfort, but to flourish in it and grow from it, turning their uncertainty into empowerment.

GOLD introduces its participants to new friends, informs them of sexism in the media, and helps them to start seeing themselves as strong independent young women, through their relationships with older mentors.  GOLD also teaches skills that will help young girls enter high school as strong, intelligent young women, ready to take on the world.

GOLD Registration is now open for volunteers and 8th grade girls! Sign up today.  

Written by: Mia Kania, Forest Foundation Intern at YWCA Cambridge 

The Story Behind Trailblazing Women

In January of 2017, the Cambridge community lost a long-time member, activist, and unsung hero, Renae Gray.  While deciding how to honor her legacy, Denise Simmons, Dita Obler, and Eva Martin Blythe came together with an idea. The group was touched by Renee Gray’s commitment to teaching her daughter Michele Scott about women’s role in social change. This lead to the idea of honoring 6 sets of mothers and daughter team activists in the Cambridge community.

During that time, two Community Conversations fellows went to an event where they met Fran Smith, a staff member from Mass Humanities. Mass Humanities had developed an Open and Honest Dialogue program focused on race and white supremacy. Using this model alongside Community Conversations: Sister to Sister Dialogue Model, the idea of Trailblazing Women was born.

Having lost another important social change activist, Nancy Beckford, the team decided to continue the Trailblazing Women tradition. This event will be running for a second year with the theme of “Nevertheless She Persisted” in honor of our women’s champion, Elizabeth Warren, Senator of MA. The night will consist of an honoring of 6 sisterhood duos who are committed to social change within the Cambridge community.

From there, we will hold a communal reading of Maya Angelou’s “In Her Own Words”. Using the combined dialogue model, facilitators will break the audience up into small groups to discuss the piece and the role of gender, ethnic, and racial identity, resilience in the face of diversity, and building women’s networks.

Please join YWCA Cambridge, Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, Mass Humanities, City of Cambridge, Cambridge Women’s Commission, and E. Denise Simmon on March 28, 2018 from 5:45-8pm at Cambridge City Hall for the 2nd Annual Trailblazing Women: Communal Reading & Community Conversation.

Trailblazing Women is honoring the following sisterhood duos this year:

Nancy Beckford, Shelley Flaherty, & Roberta Green
Denise Maguire & Christine Elow
Rosalind O’Sullivan & Claudie Jean-Baptiste
Poppy Milner & Gail Willett
Dorothy Elizabeth Tucker & Andy Taylor-Blenis
MeiLin Pratt & Naomi Tsegaye

TrailblazingWomen_March2018