Addressing racial disparities in a time of crisis

I got an up-close look at how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S.

It was clear from the start that the COVID-19 pandemic would disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. As a summer intern supporting Oakland, California’s COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force, Hannah Summerfield-Gonchar ‘21 got an up-close look at that reality.

The emergency task force was created in April 2020 by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other leaders in the region to address the racialized impacts of COVID-19. It brought together elected officials and representatives of community-based organizations and health clinics to address urgent needs facing high-risk populations in Oakland and reduce health disparities. In the summer of 2020, when vaccines were not yet available, a big focus of the task force was on distributing personal protective equipment and creating adequate testing sites.

For Summerfield-Gonchar, a sociology/psychology double major who grew up in the Bay Area, working on the task force allowed her “to witness the power of communities uniting across organizations and disciplines.” She engaged with organizations from Asian American, Native American, African American, Latinx and other communities as part of her work on the task force.

“It was amazing seeing everyone come together to talk about the different struggles that their communities faced,” Summerfield-Gonchar said. “It was a very intense process and very rewarding to be part of a group of people figuring out how to best aid these communities.” She took notes for mayoral staff during task force meetings and drafted e-newsletter content to be sent out to all task force members, among other things.

Although the internship was entirely virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, it brought sociology to life by personalizing and localizing concepts she had encountered in coursework. “In sociology we look at groups of people and how they interact in society,” Summerfield-Gonchar said. “But I’d never gotten to look at groups in my own community that way.” To see real-time group interactions in a hands-on way was fascinating, she said.

The Racial Disparities Task Force’s mission directly aligned with two of Summerfield-Gonchar’s interests: social justice and public health. (She may pursue a master’s degree in the latter.) She felt prepared for the internship experience in part because of one of her favorite sociology courses: Organizations and Inequality, taught by Professor Eleanor Townsley. As part of that class, which explores how organizations create, reproduce and also challenge social inequalities, students write case studies of an organization. Summerfield-Gonchar chose to profile the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), where her mother teaches.

As it turned out, OUSD was a member of the task force. The school district was at the center of a massive free meal distribution program that involved partnerships with other local organizations. COVID-19 is a public health crisis, but for many in Oakland, it was also an economic and even a nutritional crisis. Summerfield-Gonchar saw, in real time, the full scope of the pandemic’s impact and how organizations were improvising to meet the needs of the moment. 

She also saw how the government can be a force for good simply by engaging different community organizations to solve common problems. “I really appreciated seeing the city of Oakland reach out to and bring together diverse organizations. Being able to help raise the voices and needs of those greatly affected by COVID-19 because of their race or ethnicity is not something I’ll forget.”