Melissa: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega, welcome back to the Takeaway. Last year, Chicago was the first city to announce the COVID-19 pandemic was just proportionately affecting African-Americans. In the weeks that followed it became clear that COVID-19 disparate racial impact was national. The pandemic like so many disasters before it, revealed the sustained inequalities that underline many aspects of American life. Laying bare health disparities, housing instability and workforce vulnerabilities. Left shouldering the heaviest burden was an often forgotten group, Black girls.
A new report from A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based non-profit advocating for racial and gender equity outlines how the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism affected the health lives, education and economic stability of Black girls and their families. The report also highlights the many ways Black girls organized, led resisted and survived with me now with Salamishah Tillet Professor of African-American Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers University. She's a co-founder of A Long Walk Home. Salamishah thank you for joining us.
Salamishah: Thank you for having me, I'm so honored and blessed to be here.
Melissa: It's always lovely to talk with you. Can you start by breaking down, why A Long Walk Home decided to pivot a bit in the COVID-19 moment to really look at these questions of survival resilience, vulnerability among the Back girls that you all have been working with for so long?
Salamishah: Yes, basically as we were all being enveloped in this huge catastrophe, this huge global crisis, we began seeing that the girls that we work with and who we organize with, who are already at risk for so many other forms of violence, gender based violence, racial injustice, we're also experiencing very severe and economic insecurity that was unprecedented. Even though that's the case for most Americans, what we saw was that girls who were oftentimes caregivers in their home already taking care of their cousins and their grandparents. Were now also being asked and being required to become Primary Financial Providers for their family, as their parents were losing their jobs.
You have teenage girls leaving the home, are going to nursing homes and grocery stores, and acting as essential workers and so this twin pandemic of racial injustice and coronavirus also led to a new category of Black girls being essential workers on top of being the primary caregivers in their homes. We thought that that was really important to reveal and to show but then they were really devastating effects on the safety and emotional health of the girls themselves.
Melissa: I want to talk a little bit about the statistics of the loss these young people were experiencing fairly stunning numbers 75% almost knowing someone personally in their family who had been infected by COVID and a full quarter, 25%, experiencing direct loss of a family member, friend, community member someone they knew to the COVID 19 virus.
Salamishah: At the time nationally, there was such a racial disparity between how white families and Black families were experiencing the loss due to the pandemic. Particularly the fatal losses due to the pandemic but again, we saw with our girls that they were, like you just pointed out, the intimacy and the closeness to the people that were being taken away that who were dying was so astronomical. We saw severe spikes in depression in Black girls. This is another thing that in this moment, we're talking about mental health and how to provide spaces and care for a young people.
Black girls were really before the Pandemic suffering from high rates of suicidal ideation but because of the pandemic it only increased and now they're being socially isolated due to the schools being closed and quarantine and stay at home orders and so we saw a spike in. Basically, how does one respond to loss? How does one respond to isolation? How does one respond to a kind of closing of schools that oftentimes provide some resources, particularly around counseling for the girls that we work with?
Melissa: Talk to me a little bit about what this past year and a half has been like for the Black girls in your report.
Salamishah: Yes. I had the opportunity to interview Ariana, who is in high school right now and so one of the things that she pointed out, and she's kind of emblematic of many of the girls that we work with and many of the Black girls who live in Chicago, is that she became increasingly isolated as a result of the pandemic. Meaning that she obviously had no contact or counselor, wasn't with her friends and our peer group who oftentimes emotional resources.
At the same time didn't have the technology to be able to access her classroom. Then once she was able to have it was kind of very rigidly set up. She couldn't communicate with other people. That was just a glaring challenge that we've found for most of the girls that we work with, that this question of the digital divide which seems really an old fashioned issue but it's still-- really became glaring during the pandemic.
You have girls who are at home. They have limited access to technology and therefore limited access to learning, they're taking care of themselves, they're taking care of their siblings, their cousins, oftentimes older people in their homes who are sick with COVID and asked to go out and get jobs. This is the conundrum of the crisis that we found Black girls dealing with during the height of the pandemic and it just kind of continued as the racial protest kind of took off around the country.
Melissa: That precisely where I was going, add to all of that story you were just telling and then add on top of it as summer filled with demonstrations around race and violence. Many of the young people you were working with in Chicago, again, young folks who found themselves engaged in this work, how did that additional factor impact what they were experiencing?
Salamishah: When you look at Black children and in Black girls in particular this idea of compounded loss. We already talked about the death toll of the pandemic and now you're talking about the death toll of police violence and how it impacts Black families, particularly in Chicago, where there wasn't a decrease in violence, there wasn't a decrease in Gender based violence, that was increased. There wasn't a decrease in community violence and there wasn't a decrease in police violence. This is what we saw nationwide wide, Darnella Frazier was there, the 17-year-old girl who bravely took the recording of George Floyd's murder.
That for Black girls who were both witnesses to and victims of multiple forms of violence, including police violence this was just an extraordinarily difficult period and so when we think about them taking their bodies, putting their bodies on the front lines for the protest, over 60% of our girls were actively involved in racial justice protest throughout the summer. We have to remember that they are girls, they're our children and so what does it mean when children feel compelled to take to the streets and defend their lives and the lives of their siblings and their parents.
Because that's how Darnella Frazier talked about it. It was her father that she saw, it was her brother that she saw in George Floyd. This is an extraordinarily tragic time in many ways for Black girls but at the same time, we saw them rise to the occasion. Their leadership that they already display in the community was really at the forefront of the protest organizing in Chicago and beyond.
Melissa: In this moment, when there is such public impulse to get back to normal, what's the repairative action that Local Governments, Federal Government and Communities ought to be doing relative to Black girls and the experiences they had outlined in your report.
Salamishah: Yes, we're at a really Critical moment of learning of transformation and transition. We created a fund for Black girls, both a national fund but within A Long Walk Home, a part of what we really saw was necessary was providing kind of Instant Micro-Grants and Instant Relief Funds for the girls that we work with.
Melissa: Salamishah Tillet, the Henry Rutgers Professor of African-American Studies in Creative Writing and a co-Founder of A Long Walk Home. If you want to know more about some of these actions that Professor Tillet was talking about, you can go to Black Girl Freedom Fund or to alongwalkhome.org. Thank you so much Salamishah for joining us.
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