Not A Return to Normal

By Ann Murtlow


We’ve arrived at the two-and-a-half-month mark since United Way of Central Indiana joined with Lilly Endowment, CICF (through the Glick Fund and The Indianapolis Foundation), Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, and Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to distribute the first funds from the Central Indiana COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund (C-CERF) – a fund established to specifically fight the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.


When I think about the events of these last 75 days, my heart breaks for the unimaginable loss, trauma, fear and despair we’ve endured as a community. My heart also rejoices in the hard work and dedication of our human services network, the resiliency of so many to keep fighting through the hardship, and the hope we all still have for a stronger community when all of this is over.


Since day one of this crisis, Hoosiers proved that we are #INThisTogether. Front line workers put themselves in harm’s way to care for us. People have donated money, food, blood, books, and supplies to those in need. Many have risked their lives volunteering to help. Neighbors are helping neighbors. When I hear stories of good deeds and see so much generosity, I’m truly humbled to call myself a Hoosier. We will eventually emerge from this crisis and return to some semblance of normality.


What Does Normal Really Mean?
For those who were living a comfortable life before COVID-19, a return to normal might be a desired outcome. But for those struggling to put food on the table before the pandemic, returning to normal isn’t something to look forward to. For those who were working several jobs and were still struggling to make ends meet, returning to normal is a daily fight for survival. For those who were struggling to keep up with their peers in school because they were working 30 hours a week to help support their families and don’t have internet access at home, normal means constant exhaustion. For those who don’t have health insurance or access to health care and adequate nutrition, chronic medical conditions were the norm.


For some individuals and families in communities of color, “normal” is just a return to many painful issues and experiences of inequality, poverty, prejudice, bias and violence made worse by a pandemic that seems to have further targeted them. Unemployment has devastated households that depend on the hospitality, food service, transportation, travel and/or retail sectors – areas in which people of color are over-represented in employment and earliest hit by significant job losses in this crisis. Many others who remained employed as essential workers and as such risked their own safety in the early days of the crisis also risked the safety of their loved ones when they returned to homes in which social distancing from vulnerable family members may not have been possible. Kids who used to be able to rely on schools for meals, learning and socialization in a safe environment are now looking for food elsewhere, often in neighborhoods that are food deserts, being expected to learn differently without the resources of familiar technology or access to the internet in their home or in their community, and isolated from their teachers and other children.


For some, COVID-19 has meant some surreal but relatively benign inconveniences. To others, it means life-threatening challenges that need the help of a community to overcome.


Losing Lives, Lost Humanity.
All of this struggle is further complicated by what seems to be never-ending loss.


First, there is the unimaginable loss of family members, friends and neighbors to a mysterious virus. These people were loved and died alone with no one to comfort them.


Then, in recent weeks, we witness the tragic loss of so many in our own Central Indiana community to violence. We see the unexplainable killing of an unarmed black man running from two white men in Georgia. Just days ago in Minneapolis, we are horrified to see a black man gasping for breath – and later dying – as he’s held down to the ground by a police officer. We watch humanity lost when a white woman, fueled by unnecessary fear and anger, hurls threats at a black man in Central Park – all because of an argument over a dog leash. All of these events caught, in whole or in part, on video and replayed on constant loop on televisions and social media feeds. These traumatic experiences have undeniable lasting effects on the physical, emotional, and economic health of individuals, families and communities.


A return to “normal” shouldn’t be the goal because “normal”, for so many, was not a life of comfort and opportunity but rather a life of struggle, disappointment and constant worry.


Digging Deeper to Find Solutions.
The issues I mention neither exclusively affect people and communities of color nor do they affect all people or communities of color. But the data from numerous studies make clear that people of color are more likely to be financially unstable than their white neighbors – and their numbers are growing. United Way of Central Indiana is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in all the work we do. Like many in our community, we continue to listen to the voices of our neighbors, friends, and colleagues, and learn from their lived experience about how we can do better and be better for each other. Over the last year, that has taken shape in a number of ways big and small including “what it’s like to be me” workshops among team members to share their own experiences and speak candidly about their experiences based on race, gender, and sexual orientation; implicit bias training for staff and board to call out best practices and set organizational norms; cross-team chats about articles on race and ethnicity; and an all staff facilitated book reading on white privilege. We have learned a lot individually and as a team.


Beyond our internal teamwork, we have made it a point in our impact work to dig deeper in the data to better understand disparities and systemic barriers facing those who struggle to make ends meet. We have also expanded the organizations with whom we partner through new accreditation, social innovation grants, and C-CERF with an intentionality to identify and include organizations that are led by and supportive of people of color. But there is much more that can and should be done to educate ourselves, listen with empathy, invest with intentionality, and advocate for continued solutions that allow all people in our community to meet their potential and have a quality of life we can all be proud of. We are committed to continuing that through our equity journey.


We don’t have all the answers. But we know we need dialogue to find solutions. We must have the determination to fight for solutions that don’t just solve short term problems but fix longer term structural issues. And, we also must have hope. Hope not for a return to a normal that was good enough for some but was never working for many of our neighbors. Hope for a better future… one of opportunity – for all our neighbors.