This op-ed ran on June 1, 2020 in YES! Media and was authored by Steve Gates, our Growth Director at Chicago Beyond and Chicago CRED Roseland Site Manager.

As the city of Chicago heads into the summer and prepares to reopen after three months of sheltering-in-place, community advocates worry about the young people who struggled before the COVID-19 pandemic, and who will continue to struggle even as the city and state attempts to slowly return to a semblance of normal.

In Roseland on Chicago’s South Side—the neighborhood where I was born, raised, and now work in—I see young Black men and women struggling daily with home conditions that are poor, crowded and, in many cases, unsafe. Quarantine exacerbates those cumulative traumas by making young people stay inside, surrounded by the worries that range from relationship drama to drug use, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.  

Before COVID-19, local youth in Chicago had physical access to support systems such as trauma care, cognitive behavioral support, and conflict mediation through community organizations including Chicago CRED and the Inner City Muslim Action Network, all of which have been indefinitely disrupted. 

The tentative steps that city and state officials are taking to reopen are not yet sufficient to reverse the social, emotional, and economic toll of COVID-19 on Black youth. And because the health crisis persists, it will not be safe for us to gather together like before, for the foreseeable future.

Many in our city have transitioned their lives to Zoom calls to keep everyday business going. However, physical proximity is crucial to violence interruption. Organizers on the front lines can’t truly reach young men through Zoom. We can’t look in a young man’s eyes and know what’s really going on through Zoom. It’s jarring. For anti-violence workers, Zoom calls are insufficient intervention methods. No virtual tool in existence can facilitate and maintain the type of trusting and meaningful human relationships that our young people need.

Combined, these new and preexisting challenges underscore the bias and shortsightedness in many of the mainstream narratives about how Black communities, and especially Black youth, are responding to COVID-19. 

Only when we share honest stories about our city and its young people will we uncover the realities that need to be addressed.

We know that, nationwide, Black people are falling sick and dying from the virus at disproportionately higher rates. In Chicago, Black residents are dying at almost six times the rate of White residents. We also know that these alarming disparities are directly tied to deep systemic challenges that have afflicted Black communities for generations—high poverty, joblessness, inequitable health care, and deliberate governmental disinvestment at all levels. 

Those of us who work directly with youth in disinvested communities have an opportunity and obligation to paint the full picture. If we truly want to keep our young people safe and healthy, we must be honest about how badly they’ve been hurting long before COVID-19 and how that is affecting their ability to cope now. 

To start, organizations and the funders that support them should begin investing in storytelling initiatives that amplify the stories and lived experiences of Black youth in the age of COVID-19. These authentic narratives can then be leveraged to counteract negative images and stereotypes now being promoted through traditional and social media. This is critical to ensuring that Black youth are regarded as more than just statistics, but as human beings who deserve a fair and equitable chance to achieve their full promise and potential.

Only when we share honest stories about our city and its young people will we uncover the realities that need to be addressed as well as the solutions our youth and community leaders are already designing and implementing.

Further, as evidence and data continue to develop on the virus and its community-level impact, we must ensure that the communities being directly affected are at the table and have their voices heard. In the Chicago Beyond report Why Am I Always Being Researched?—COVID-19 Edition, we address how failing to integrate community input, along with unintended or unchecked implicit bias, directly influences research outcomes. This in turn generates inaccurate information that ultimately does more harm than good to the communities we serve.  While the nation’s future remains uncertain, it is up to all of us—including leaders in the community, philanthropy, nonprofit, and public sector—to set the tone for what a truly equitable and inclusive recovery for Black youth and communities will look like.