Grassroots Organizers Fight COVID-19 Health Disparities

Local organizers with masks

When Donté Gibbs of Donté’s Gift Express teamed up with Shanell Smith Whigham, the Ohio Director of Trust for Public Land, to combat the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, they focused specifically on supporting African American, Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities.

Comorbidities such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma (health conditions recognized as risk factors for COVID-19) are particularly pronounced at the intersection of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and poverty. Why? Because people of color and LGBTQ+ persons are more likely to lack health insurance coverage, have asthma, live in poverty, and face a pile-up of inequities due to structural racism.

As co-organizers of Masks 4 Community, Gibbs and Whigham recognized  an opportunity for  Cleveland and East Cleveland communities to “step up and do something BIG,” explains Gibbs.

Armed with the knowledge that specific communities are at greater risk, they went to work, determined to no longer accept the “it is what it is” mentality. Together with over 120 volunteers, Gibbs says, the duo looked for a way that they “could shift the power and make change.”

Local organizers with masks

They found that opportunity in the distribution of reusable washable masks to spread awareness and help protect the underserved and underrepresented in Cleveland and East Cleveland. Funded by the St. Luke’s Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation’s Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, Masks 4 Community started with the modest goal of providing reusable washable masks to 5,000 community members.

 Soon, though, the number grew to 30,000 and continued to climb up to 60,000. Masks were distributed at essential community locations such as grocery stores, pharmacies, discount stores, food bank sites, and planned community events in Cleveland neighborhoods and East Cleveland.

The goal of providing so many reusable washable masks to the community created a need for the actual masks. While the group did make purchases from national retailers, they specifically turned to local retailers. Using local groups like Cosmic Bobbins, Esperanza Threads, Cleveland Over Everything, and Ortiz Art Draft Designs “just felt right, bringing strength to the community,” Gibbs says, which is exactly what Masks 4 community set out to do.

Along with the locally made masks, Masks 4 Community also distributed information from Metro Health about COVID-19, fliers about voting from Cleveland Votes, and U.S. Census material. According to Gibbs, Masks 4 Community is “much bigger than masks; this is a part of the movement.”

The group of volunteers found creative ways to partner with others to help supply masks and information. One such effort was Democracy and Biscuits, a socially distanced event with Cleveland Biscuit Heads that provided food and masks and informational materials to the community, while volunteers made more bags for distribution.

Pairing events together made for less burnout, they found, and allowed them to surpass their original goal — ultimately providing 77,000 masks and information bags to residents in Cleveland and East Cleveland.

Margaret Mead is credited with saying “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” These local organizers have demonstrated just that — both an accomplishment worth celebrating and a source of great hope in the fight to build a more equitable Cleveland.

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