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

Why I Vote: A Letter to My Sister

My younger sister asked me the other day, “Why are you so obsessed with voting and getting people registered to vote?”

To give you some backstory… I have been pretty adamant in the last two years about discussing politics, encouraging friends to register to vote, getting involved with organizations, and going to the polls no matter if its presidential, midterm, or local elections. I have become “the crazy voting lady”; but that is okay.

After getting off the phone with my sister, I mulled over the conversation. How do I explain my passion to her and her friends who really don’t care much about elections, let alone politics? How do I verbalize something that I consider to be so extremely vital?

Upon reflecting, I developed a list of reasons voting in elections is so essential to me.

  1. It took until June 26, 2015 for my LGBTQ+ friend’s marriages to be federally recognized. I remember being so elated but also so mad that it took this long for something as simple as love to be recognized in the eyes of the government.
  2. When I was in high school, my mom was unemployed and on food stamps but it wasn’t enough to feed her, my sister, and I. It was barely enough to pay for the rent and a few meals. The government has unrealistic ideas of living wages.
  3. Some of my friends who went to school for Associate degrees don’t make a living wage of $15/hour but have thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
  4. When I was in college, my dad was still unemployed from the recession. Since I was in college, I was no longer covered under state insurance and my college insurance rates were too expensive for me to cover since I only made $7.75/hour for 10-15 hours a week. I was uninsured and scared of every possible illness. Getting a cold was terrifying. “What if it escalated? I can’t go to urgent care. I don’t have $150 to cover this.” It was three months, but man those were three very stressful months.
  5. During the recession, my dad and mom’s medications cost so much without insurance that they had to pick and choose which ones were essential on a given month.
  6. It’s 2018 and my co-workers and friends of color are still scared to get pulled over by the police, because in the current climate, getting pulled over for a broken tail light has lead to death at the hands of those who serve.
  7. My monthly student loan payment is more than my monthly rent payment.
  8. Women are still afraid to speak up because even when a man does something that violates a woman he is welcomed with open arms by the highest law making entity in the United States or told his future is “too bright” for him to serve time in jail.
  9. Our criminal justice system is broken. It is broken beyond repair. Men and women of color in disproportionate numbers go to jail because they can’t pay traffic fines or for minor drug charges. This becomes an easy way for the government to fully discriminate against them for housing, government aid, jobs, and most importantly – takes away their voice and ability to make a difference, by not allowing them to vote.  
  10. If we aren’t voting for people who care about these dire issues, we will never see real change. Change happens on the floor of the House and the Senate. It happens when the right people are in office.

To my dear sister: I vote, because I want you to HAVE a future, a voice, a choice. I want you to matter. I want you to thrive in a country that believes everyone is equal. I believe that every vote is a step in that direction. Every vote counts. Your voice matters.

Written by: Whitney Mooney, Administrative Assistant 

syd
My sister and I on her high school graduation day.

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

We Are On a Mission in 2018.

When thinking about the New Year and what it means for YWCA Cambridge, we began to look at the four core programs that make us who we are. Those four programs are: Housing and Shelter Services; Health and Wellness; Empowerment and Economic Advancement of Women and Girls; and Racial and Social Justice. Each area is key to the success of our mission: to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

In order to highlight our efforts in 2018, we have created this blog to showcase issues, achievements, stories, and events surrounding our program areas.  From telling the stories of our girls leadership program (GOLD) participants to reporting on our efforts to overcome the issues of personal and institutional racism, we want to give you the ins and outs of YWCA Cambridge through monthly blog posts. Our goal with this blog is to educate, motivate and create conversations about each program area.

We want to know what issues are important to you. Tell us what you want to hear or learn more about! Email Whitney at wmooney@ywcacam.org.