The Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19, and Why It’s a Matter of Environmental Justice: Part 3, Kent County and Grand Rapids

By Hope O’Dell and Gregory Manni

For some background to this article, and a look at healthcare disparity and environmental injustice in Michigan, read Part 2.

Sergio Cira-Reyes was frustrated. He and other community members had been going back and forth with Kent County officials for months, asking for answers and resources for their community. 

“Unfortunately,” he said, “their response—even when we pointed it out—they were still not responding quick enough. The county’s response was not proportionate to the need.” 

As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, 31.9% of coronavirus cases reported in Kent County have come from the Hispanic or Latinx community, which makes up 10.7% of the total population. This disproportionate impact made a group of local Latinx and Hispanic organizations—a collective called LatinxGR—concerned about adequate communication and funds for testing. LatinxGR expressed its concern to the Kent County COVID Relief Subcommittee, along with the need for public health information to be presented in languages other than English.

In late April, Kent County received nearly $115 million in COVID-19 aid from the federal government through the CARES Act. Other than the $28 million that was allocated to small businesses, Cira-Reyes said LatinxGR had no idea what that money was going to.

“We want a breakdown of how much the Health Department had allocated and invested in serving the largest representative handful of COVID infections that they have,” Cira-Reyes said. “Because that’s how you measure equitable distribution of resources. Where the need is greatest is where it should go.”

A breakdown can now be found online, but it’s still hard to determine exactly where the money is going, and to which communities. Kent County allocated $7 million to testing and contact tracing, $3 million to “mitigation of homelessness” and $12.2 million to “vulnerable populations,” most of which is going to non-profit organizations dedicated to first-response and youth education. 

The Kent County Health Department is currently providing COVID-19 information in multiple languages, and has confirmed that the virus is disproportionately affecting populations of color. However, the department deferred to Gov. Whitmer’s Task Force on Racial Disparities to determine any course of action.

(Here’s Kent County’s documentation on federal funding through the CARES Act.)

Cira-Reyes said Kent County’s response was symptomatic of a lack of effort on behalf of people of color. When asked if the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted a dynamic of disparity that he, and other people in the Latinx community had always known, he said, “This gave us proof that that was the case.”

The roadblock that Cira-Reyes and the Latinx community faced is one small story. But the national narrative of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 is composed of small stories—in the interactions between city and citizen, doctor and patient, landlord and tenant, neighbor and neighbor.

In Kent County, it’s been reflected in the distribution of COVID-19 relief, but also in the way local institutions have chosen to serve their constituents in the past. By overlooking Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Hispanic groups—and by not including them in key decisions—those who have power in Kent County and in Grand Rapids have contributed to the harm these groups are feeling now.

While the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) has accomplished many good things here in Michigan, our criticism must fall upon our own history. We must examine the small, untold stories, and ask who it is that our accomplishments have served. Many environmental injustices continue to go unchallenged, right here in Grand Rapids.

Systemic Racism in Garfield Park

Fran Dalton has seen systemic racism inflict deep cuts upon people in her neighborhood, as an organizer for the Garfield Park Neighbhorhoods Association (GPNA). Like Cira-Reyes, she serves people who have suffered the effects of racial and ethnic disparity.

“We work with our neighbors in facilitating their desires, dreams, hopes for the neighborhood,” Dalton said. 

GPNA also aims to address community members’ concerns—and in a neighborhood with such a range of races, ethnicities, income levels, and housing, Dalton said solutions often vary. 

Garfield Park is one of Grand Rapids’ largest and most diverse regions: 50% of its population comprises Hispanic or Latinx individuals, while 24% are white, 22% are Black and 3% are two or more races. Asian, Indigenous, and other races make up the remainder. Garfield Park also contains many low-income communities, with the sixth lowest income per capita of all Grand Rapids neighborhoods.

Dalton said that it became tough to reach residents when the pandemic arrived, because GPNA had to radically change its face-to-face programming to a model that’s social-media-based. With all the changes, she is concerned that some people are being left by the wayside. Lower-income individuals might have a harder time accessing the internet, for example.

“We worry about that a lot,” Dalton said. “Because of our limitations and how we have to work now to be safe—our constituents as well as ourselves—that is a risk that we have of losing our ability to reach folks.” 

Because Garfield Park is majority non-white, and because it has a large number of low-income individuals, Dalton is certain that her neighbors are more vulnerable to major crises like COVID-19 and climate change. One of her greatest environmental concerns is the threat posed by historical pollution practices in Garfield Park.

Garfield Park makes up about half of the 49507 zip code, which has topped state charts for lead poisoning in children—and its border is less than half a mile away from the vapor intrusion site that caused a mass evacuation in 2016.

Dalton also recalled the polar vortex of 2019, and how some members of Garfield Park were harmed by the extreme cold, which, scientists have theorized, could be linked to climate change.

“We had the polar vortex a year ago that was just horrendous,” Dalton said. “And within our people of lower income, they suffered greatly.”

Progress from Whose Perspective?

Dalton said she is not impressed by the newfound focus upon the plight of people of color amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. A Black woman herself, she disagreed with the idea that life has gotten worse for people of color, stating that instead, white people and white-led institutions have finally opened their eyes to reality.

“White people got woke. That’s what happened,” she said. “People of color have known this all the time—been saying it for years.”

She related the heightened awareness to national coverage of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this past May. Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers sparked a surge of protests against police brutality around the world.

“When COVID happened and Mr. Floyd got killed,” she said, “then we have, all of a sudden, this flood of declarations from organizations and businesses about how they are supportive.”

Dalton said the sudden national recognition is frustrating, since it only highlights the long-held absence of concern coming out of white-led organizations and businesses. She said those that have declared their support should put their money where their mouth is.
“Will they?” she said, “Probably not.”

Looking at the track record of major corporations, or institutions like law enforcement and healthcare, it is easy to understand Dalton’s realistic expectations. But Dalton herself has continued to persevere in the face of stagnant progress. She believes the best way to effect change is to bring all the key players to the table, including larger “change agents,” like government institutions. That’s how they do it at GPNA. But Dalton also indicated how difficult it is for communities of color to trust these change agents after generations of being ignored. 

“Lack of confidence, lack of trust, is simply a product of the existence marginalized populations have existed under forever in this country,” Dalton said. “So it’s an underlying piece of the work that you always have to recognize and deal with.”

To account for this inherent distrust, and the historic vulnerability of people of color, Dalton said two pieces are necessary to fight against the pervasive effects of environmental injustice: recognition and engagement.

“It’s recognized, it’s documented—the data is there,” Dalton said. “We know it’s an issue. We know it’s a concern. There is, in fact, a wide swath of environmental injustice going on—and has been—and will continue to go on.”

Once organizations look at the data and recognize the problem, Dalton said they need to engage in a way that focuses on the needs of impacted communities—to seek out and understand their hardships, and then work on them together. Remote environmental issues like stormwater runoff often don’t gain traction with vulnerable, low-income members of the community, Dalton said, because vulnerable people don’t have the energy. They are often busy fending off other systemic inequities, concentrating on day-to-day survival.

“It’s like the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs,” Dalton said. “What’s highest on your needs: the environment, or a roof over your head?” 

Many environmental advocacy groups haven’t done the work of engaging with communities of color or looking to their environmental concerns—and WMEAC is not exempt from these shortcomings. Part of this misplaced focus is due to the fact that green groups are notoriously white. Cira-Reyes said the problem stems from the origins of the environmentalism movement.

“The mission that drives the work, the initiatives, the programs,” he said, “has been developed through a white lens.”

Conservation vs. Justice

The environmentalism movement began with a fixation on conserving nature, which has left old-guard environmental organizations, often majority-white organizations, ignorant to the issues that impact communities living in urban spaces or in the vicinity of industrial sites. The policies and protections set by early environmentalism were racially exclusive. The U.S. National Parks, for example, come with a history of segregation that continues to act as a barrier-to-access.

Drawing from his own experience, Cira-Reyes sees an appreciation of the outdoors as something that has predominantly been passed down through white, middle-class families. He said that many people of color have not experienced a close relationship to nature, because that relationship has been taken away from them.

“It’s not cultural,” he said. “We are connected to the environment. It’s the fact that we just simply have been deprived of it, that we don’t feel safe in it, that we don’t possess property, that we don’t have access, that we don’t have the resources, that we don’t have the knowledge.”

Historically, people of color have been at the forefront of battles against pollution and land abuse, championing the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable. Dolores Huerta and César Chávez helped form the United Farm Workers Union in 1962. They worked tirelessly for Latinx farmworkers’ rights, and linked labor safety to the toxic effects of unregulated pesticides. In 1978, Rev. Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism,” in reference to a toxic landfill that the government chose to place in a predominantly Black community. Environmental justice leaders in the Southwest were responsible for exposing the racism inherent to major organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council in 1990.

People of color began the modern environmental justice movement. They did it by demanding survival for their own communities. But public recognition of the movement didn’t solve the imbalance of power in environmentalism.

For example, at the onset of the movement in 1978, a working-class community in the neighborhood of Love Canal, New York garnered national attention when activist Lois Gibbs, a white woman, organized against the toxic waste dumped there. But what is often overlooked in the story is the fact that the cries for justice by the lower-income Black women in the neighborhood were nearly silenced by the white activists. After the environmental disaster had captured the public, the white families were relocated. The Black families facing the same health issues had to stay and fight for a while longer. 

Though the incident at Love Canal happened over forty years ago, not much has changed. People of color continue to be sidelined from mainstream environmentalism, and from natural spaces—and systemic oppression has made it even harder for them to push environmental inequality forward. Against those odds, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Hispanic people remain a solid force in their organizing against key environmental problems. Compared to whites, for example, people of color are more concerned about climate change, and are more willing to act to reduce it.

Looking Ahead

Dalton said that there needs to be a change in governmental policy to alleviate the struggles that low-income households and vulnerable people of color face. Eased burdens will ultimately allow those individuals to focus on the environmental issues that matter to them.

“If we have a change at that level,” Dalton said, “they can have a little bit of stretch in their bandwidth of concern to address environmental inequality.”

Dalton agreed that disparities in voting access play a part in keeping people of color out of environmental justice work, since governmental policy is determined by elected officials. In tandem with policy change, Dalton said environmental advocacy organizations, including WMEAC, need to seriously examine their absence from within communities of color.

Taking the local angle as well, Cira-Reyes said that environmental organizations need to stop viewing people of color as commodities and “warm bodies in grant-funded programs.” Rather, they should see people of color as they truly are: “individuals who have led movements, that have led equity work in the city of Grand Rapids, and have insight that is of value to contribute.”

In discussing a path forward for environmental justice, Cira-Reyes communicated a vision for systemic change that he follows in his own advocacy work. He said that people of color need to be able to create the space and power to focus on the problems that are most important to them—to have the opportunity to lead and educate their own communities, and develop their own vision of change.

He wants to be able to talk to his community, and encourage them. To finally be able to say, “This is about us. It’s for us.”

 

This is the end of a three-part series on COVID-19 and environmental injustice in Michigan. For a deeper dive, visit the websites linked throughout each article. To take a first step for environmental justice in Michigan, vote against systemic racism on November 3.

Thanks to Crystal Scott-Tunstall, for providing key insight as an editor for this piece, and to Carlos Calderon, for help in tracking down sources.

Authors’ note: WMEAC has participated in perpetuating systemic oppression. We continue to change our programming and structure to better serve and include Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, and those in the ethnic minority, as well as to equip the organization to confront institutional and structural racism, discrimination against people with disabilities, and other injustices.

 

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