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More Than ‘Numbers on Paper’

As communities of color are burdened by COVID-19, community organizers bring stories to life while highlighting their broader missions

Black residents comprise just 30 percent of Chicago’s population, yet they account for 60 percent of the city’s COVID-19 death toll, according to a report by the Chicago Urban League.

While the immediate challenges of COVID-19 continue, last month, three Chicagoland community leaders participated in a more strategic, frank conversation about immediate needs and longer-term goals that centered specifically on lifting up communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The panelists provided new ideas for how Northwestern University and other institutions can support underserved communities, and discussed why community engagement and leadership needs to be considered a vital component of the research process.

“A strong institution like Northwestern can invest in communities of color to build up infrastructure that can be life-saving,” says Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network (SCN).

The pronounced racial gaps in Covid-19 deaths in Chicago amplifies the call for community investment made by Sahloul, James Rudyk Jr., Executive Director of Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), and Jessica Davenport-Williams, Co-Founder of Black Girls Break Bread (BGBB). The three were panelists during a panel discussion highlighting the critical role of community organizations during COVID-19.

The panelists were joined by Center for Community Health (CCH) Co-Director and event moderator Namratha Kandula, MD, MPH, during a recent Translational Applications in Public Health presentation. The lecture series is co-hosted by the Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM) and the Northwestern Clinical and Translational Sciences (NUCATS) Institute.

Dr. Kandula urged the audience to, “re-imagine what deep, sustained community relationships could look like, and how can we use our tremendous influence to support, elevate, and grow community-driven change in Chicagoland. Health equity does not have to be pie in the sky; this conversation is a starting point for Northwestern faculty, students, and administration to be creative and commit to supporting on-the ground community efforts to shift the balance of power and health in our city and state. ”  

The speakers represented three awardees among the 28 local Chicago community organizations who received COVID-19 Response and Recovery Grants in 2020. These grants aim to support community organizations that are providing critical services in many low- and moderate-income areas of Chicagoland that have been severely impacted by COVID-19. For example, NWSHC is remotely providing housing assistance to the Belmont Cragin community, BGBB will provide mental health resources and meals for Black women and girls to mitigate maternal and infant mortality rates on the South and West sides of Chicago, and the Syrian Community Network is providing emergency cash assistance to refugees, many of whom participate in the gig economy.

The awards were funded by CCH and the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR) in collaboration with the NUCATS Institute, the Division of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Supporting Communities

While the awards and financial assistance that accompany them are acknowledged as vital support for community organizations, the conversation revealed numerous ways that Northwestern can make longer-term, sustainable commitments to local communities and the vital importance for direct engagement with the communities, especially when planning or conducting research.

“Institutionalizing community partnerships and formalizing engagement into programs that empower community organizations to be more proactive instead of reactive,” says Sahloul. 

This idea of supporting communities to proactively organize around social determinants of health was a theme throughout the conversation and a large motivating factor for the CCH COVID-19 Response and Recovery Grants.

“There is a need for research to be quantitative, but then also qualitative, and be able to incorporate lived experience, as well. This is critical because it moves beyond the numbers on the paper.” said Davenport-Williams.

While Rudyk acknowledged the necessity for financial support, he also recommended that when Northwestern researchers engage with community organizations, researchers should be able to help answer questions that matter to communities:  “We are always going to have more need than we’re able to address, and something that we always struggle with is how to measure success and impact and outcomes of our work….I wonder how the (Northwestern) researchers…can help support tracking the outcomes and impact of our work?  We don’t always have the data to back it up, and it makes our fundraising that much more difficult”

A Call
for Commitment Towards Structural Change

Panelists agreed that academic institutions could better support their efforts to close startling disparities in life expectancy across different Chicago neighborhoods.

Sahloul reminded the audience that “Chicago is a tale of two cities, where you have pockets of Chicago that are doing so well … and then you drive just a couple blocks down and it’s a completely different story.”


The panel explored the complex reasons for those gaps and discussed ideas to work towards closing them: such as, improving education and health infrastructure in disinvested neighborhoods, and for Northwestern researchers to learn about the history and current day impacts of systemic and institutional racism.

While the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Grant program clearly assisted organizations in an urgent moment of need, the panelists urged Northwestern as an institution to consider what substantive, committed, and sustainable community support would look like. Davenport-Williams’ urged the audience to move beyond reactive, short-term financial support to longer-term systemic changes that address deep-seated societal issues like poverty and racism.

“For researchers and institutions, that have so much influence in the city, to have an understanding of the structures and the root causes. It is one thing to deploy financial resources … but those are just band aids. We really have to get to the root cause and be able to dismantle some of these structures and policies”


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