Combat racial disparities like never before: A post-coronavirus imperative


This piece originally appeared at

COVID-19 has shown us not just our vulnerability to crisis — but laid bare the deep racial inequality that has long existed in New York City. Over the past two months, nowhere have we seen this so starkly as in the city’s largest borough. Brooklyn, home to the largest black population in North America, has emerged as the clearest case study for the disease’s vastly disproportionate toll on black and brown communities.

Earlier this week, the New York City Health Department released data indicating that the 11239 zip code — encompassing the Starrett City housing complex and a number of nursing homes on the southeastern edge of Brooklyn — has the city’s highest fatality rate and one of its highest infection rates. The zip code also has the highest percentage of seniors over 65, a demographic that accounts for two-thirds of all COVID-19 deaths. According to Census data, 11239 is 59% black; in Starrett City, over 85% of residents are black.

What’s happening in 11239 is true for Brooklyn at large. The deaths of older black residents are contributing to Brooklyn now having the most COVID-19 fatalities of any county in the nation.

As we consider our long road to recovery from this pandemic, we must prioritize the needs of vulnerable people of color. Government, of course, has to do its part, but community-led nonprofits are a critical piece of the solution. These are the organizations on the frontlines of the crisis every day, addressing urgent needs of our most at-risk communities. And they are running on fumes, in desperate need of a bold new philanthropic response, rooted in justice and equity that matches the scale of the crisis we have seen unfold.

When Brooklyn Community Foundation established the Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund in early March, we did so in line with our institutional commitment to racial justice — ensuring that as we delivered emergency funding throughout the borough, we prioritized support for nonprofits both led by and serving people of color.

This approach, we believe, made our efforts far more effective at getting support to where it was needed from the start — nearly a full month before the city released data revealing black and brown New Yorkers were dying at twice the rate of whites. If city and state governmental leaders had applied the same strategy to their initial response, things may be very different today.

In Brooklyn, where nearly 70% of residents are non-white, privilege and power rest largely in the hands of white residents. With systemic racism our country’s predominant pre-existing condition, we knew that a disease that could threaten the life of anyone would mean devastation for communities of color.

To date, through the generosity of over 1,300 donors, we have raised over $3 million for the Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund, 80% of which has already been deployed. The fund’s “immediate response” grants are $10,000 “no strings attached” infusions for frontline organizations providing direct cash assistance for low-wage workers, emergency food deliveries for older adults, PPE for NYCHA residents, social support for survivors of domestic violence and people recently released from incarceration, and much more.

Our support is going to organizations that have largely been overlooked by traditional philanthropy. Of the 145 organizations we have funded, one third have annual operating budgets under $500,000 and over 70% are led by people of color.

We are also willing to take chances in ways some funders may deem too risky: Nearly half of these grantees have no prior funding relationship with us. This includes Afrolatin@ Project, which is using 3D printing to produce medical-grade PPE for Brooklyn hospitals in communities of color; Black Trans Media, which is providing black trans Brooklynites with supplies and groceries as well as documenting its communities’ response to the pandemic, and Brownsville Community Development Corporation, which opened the first COVID-19 testing site in the neighborhood.

As we look ahead to the next phase of our Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund, we are going to spend time this summer asking directly impacted Brooklynites what they think a fair and just recovery looks like, so that we are not working toward a return to normal, but creating something far better.

Achieving this kind of recovery will require a much larger government and philanthropic investment than we have seen so far. In fact, as we quickly spend the $3 million we have raised, we are asking elected officials, foundation heavyweights and philanthropists to follow our model of listening to communities, supporting grassroots organizations, and above all, prioritizing communities of color.

Last Spring, as part of our process for developing a new fund for older adults, we held a listening session with senior residents in Starrett City. Those same seniors are now losing the fight against COVID-19. It is up to us all to act in their honor, to ensure that this never happens again.