The Fierce Urgency of Now

Justin Maxson
Chief Executive Officer

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Riverside Church, 1967

If there is any hope for an equitable recovery from COVID-19, policy and funding decisions must be swift and targeted. Given the blatant ways structural racism is playing out in this crisis, it is both critical and urgent to support our grantee partners as they build power among communities of color, develop short and long-term economic solutions, and improve our existing policies and systems to work better for everyone. 

This catastrophe is hitting communities of color especially hard.

People of color are dying at rates two to three times their demographic representation in places that track racial data. As of May 1, for example, black Louisianians accounted for nearly 60 percent of the state’s dead from COVID-19, though they make up only 33 percent of the state’s population. Next door in Mississippi, black people are 38 percent of the population but 72 percent of the deaths. More than 80 percent of the COVID-19 patients in Georgia’s hospitals in March were black, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Latinx communities are also suffering disproportionately. The South’s agriculture and meat processing industries rely heavily on immigrant labor. The sectors are deemed “essential,” but their workers are inadequately protected. Nearly 90 food processing plants across the country have COVID-19 outbreaks. Almost 400 employees of Georgia’s poultry industry have tested positive. 

The coronavirus is devastating Native communities, already struggling with underinvestment and high poverty rates, and experts say the cases are severely undercounted as most states don’t disaggregate health data for Native Americans. One exception is New Mexico, where Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population but more than 30 percent of COVID-19 cases. The $2 trillion stimulus package passed last month appropriated $8 billion to tribal governments, but the Treasury Department has yet to disburse the funds. Tribal leaders are suing.

Tulane Environmental Law Clinic
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic

A Harvard study found morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 especially acute in areas of high air pollution, which are almost always communities of color. An 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge has more than 150 chemical plants and refineries. It is known as “Cancer Alley” because the predominantly black communities there have the highest risk of air pollution-induced cancer in America. As of late April, eight out of the 10 Louisiana parishes with the highest COVID-19 death rates are in that stretch. 

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month, 61 percent of Latinx respondents said they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut as a result of the pandemic, as did 44 percent of black and just 38 percent of white respondents. Since the coronavirus arrived in the US, Asian Americans are suffering from increased hate crimes, according to the FBI.

This is a massively important year for our democracy. 

In what is likely the most critical year for American democracy in our lifetimes, it is dangerous not to do every single thing we can to support deep and broad civic engagement work, even – especially – during this crisis. The census, which has been postponed until October 31, will determine representation and federal resource allocation for the next decade. The November elections hold critical policy and redistricting implications. These factors will threaten or enable every issue we care about from fair elections to climate change, from economic opportunity to racial justice. As organizations pivot to develop new civic engagement strategies without the ability to meet face-to-face with their constituents, they will need support for experimentation, learning and lots of fast trial and error. 

Philanthropy has an important role to play.

As COVID-19’s devastation began to ripple through the country, we took fast action. As a relatively small foundation, we were in a position to make some big shifts. We almost doubled our grant-making in 2020 with the largest financial impact being adding an additional grant year to almost all of our current grantee partners with no proposal. We made 70 $10,000 emergency grants, forgiving portions of our program-related investments and eliminating interest. We contributed to place-based response funds across the South. You can read more details here.

Many other foundations have followed suit with significant adjustments that have the potential to imagine a new relationship to our grantee partners: more resources and general support, fewer grant restrictions and reporting requirements. Nonprofits have been calling for these best-in-class practices for years; hopefully we will see permanent shifts in grantor-grantee relationships and power imbalances, and foundations can become better partners. 

I am pleased to see philanthropy reacting swiftly. A study by Candid, however, found that while funders have committed $9.1 billion toward COVID-19 response, only 3.3 percent of those grants have an explicit focus on communities of color. Our response has been limited and imperfect, but we are seeking to direct resources to work led by people of color to build power and increase equity across the South. 

I also understand not all foundations are speeding funds in significant ways, whether due to concerns about long-term perpetuity, short-term financial impact or lack of clarity about opportunities for impact. Beyond financial capital, philanthropic foundations have considerable social capital. Now is the time to influence policymakers on behalf of low-wealth communities hit hard not only by this calamity but by every crisis, from natural disasters to environmental pollution and economic downturns. Now is the time to push for voting rights, fair districts and financial support for civic engagement efforts that give low-wealth communities a real voice in our democracy. Now is the time to advocate for stronger place-based economic solutions, like community development financial institutions. Now is the time to push for the best possible social determinants of health, for bread and roses. 

This is just the beginning. 

More than half a century after Dr. King called for “vigorous and positive action,” America remains profoundly segregated in nearly every way. It is no coincidence people of color are bearing the heaviest tolls of this crisis. As the saying goes, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the outcomes it gets.” The damning disparities are the culmination of centuries of policy decisions: housing segregation, substandard care, higher rates of underlying conditions, refusal to expand Medicaid and more. 

This pandemic is offering us an opportunity to reimagine those systems to serve all of us equitably. And the people best positioned to build equitable systems are the ones most proximate to the crisis. We will listen and learn from them over the next several months and continue to support and lift up their critical work however we can. Our recent response won’t be our last. The now is too urgent. 

This is part one of Justin's two-part blog about COVID-19. Read part two here.





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