Outside a high-rise apartment building for seniors in Louisville’s West End, volunteer Harriett Rankin helped residents board a long white van to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Rankin has been with Black Lives Matter Louisville for about a year. She’s been to some protests downtown, many of which BLM Louisville helped organize.
But Rankin spends most of her time doing other things for the group, like working to improve the community’s health by getting folks to vaccine clinics or fighting hunger.
“I’m actually with Black Lives Matters’ food team,” Rankin said as she loaded up the van with sandwiches for the seniors to eat on the way to their appointments.
Rankin is part of a seven-person crew within BLM Louisville who cook and deliver 350 meals a day, three days a week to the elderly in their homes and to people experiencing homelessness.
Another team buys and delivers groceries to about 20 families a week who are struggling to make ends meet.
Most of this aid goes to people in the West End, a majority Black, low-income area in Louisville with only one major grocery store.
Decades of racially discriminatory housing and policing practices and economic disinvestment have created deep and widespread poverty in the West End. Many residents don’t have money to buy enough food, or transportation to get to a store with fresh produce or pantry staples. The area is what’s known as a “food desert” or “food apartheid.”
West End residents also suffer from high rates of diabetes, strokes, asthma and other health problems.
Rankin, who is Black and a longtime West End resident, said a lack of pharmacies and health clinics is making it harder for people to get vaccinated here.
“It’s like you put us on an island, and you forget about us,” she said.
“Us Providing Safety For Us”
Once the seniors are seated, the bus heads off from the apartment complex to the vaccination site at Emmanuel Baptist Church, a historic Black church a couple miles away.
Partnering with Black churches like Emmanuel Baptist is the strategy the city and health care providers have used to try to increase vaccine access for Black residents. Thousands of Black residents have gotten their vaccines at church pop-up clinics.
But vaccination rates in low-income majority Black neighborhoods are still much lower than in whiter, wealthier areas.
This Black Lives Matter van service is meant to help low-income and elderly Black people overcome barriers to vaccination: like lack of internet access or know-how, and transportation and mobility issues.
Volunteer Shelton McElroy, who is Black, has worked out agreements with different vaccine providers so that the people BLM brings in from the senior living home don’t have to sign up online ahead of time. McElroy said sometimes the van will even pull over on the way to the site to pick up people they see walking down the street and offer to take them to the clinic.
“I think this is actually what the world should look like: It should look like us providing safety for us,” McElroy said.
The “Continuous” Work Of Black Liberation
Black Lives Matter’s community health initiatives are just as important to Black liberation as marches and rallies, according to BLM Louisville co-founder Chanelle Helm. They’re part of efforts to build a new system through “mutual aid” that Helm believes will help Black people and other people of color to survive and thrive.
“The system isn’t here to serve us,” she said. “That system serves white folks and it serves white folks only. Black and brown people and other people of color are just utilized for labor...It’s not here to serve us, so we’re going to have to serve ourselves.”
Mutual aid is a form of organizing in which a community unites against a common problem, such as hunger, or vaccine access. The people receiving the aid are the ones directing the resources and setting the agenda — an organizing structure that sets mutual aid apart from philanthropy or charity.
The Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 1970s was known for using mutual aid. The socialist, militant, Black power group formed to fight against the same issues Black Lives Matter fights today: police violence and economic injustice against Black and oppressed people.
Through the Free Breakfast For School Children Program, the Black Panthers fed tens of thousands of low-income Black children breakfast before school from 1969 through the early 1970s. They also used the opportunity to promote the party’s political ideas among children and their families.
Many historians say this program put pressure on the federal government to create the National School Breakfast Program in 1975, which now feeds almost 15 million low-income students each school-day morning.
Helm calls the Panthers her “elders” and many others in the movement for Black Lives see themselves as direct descendants of the Panthers.
“We’re actually guided by them,” she said. “A lot of the work of Black liberation has been continuous.”
Black Lives Matter’s focus on vaccination and COVID-19 echoes the Black Panthers’ work around sickle cell disease, which like COVID-19, hits Black communities especially hard. The Black Panthers started a screening program and clinics to treat sickle cell anemia in Black communities across the country.
“That’s where a lot of those things start at,” Helm said. “So we go back again, it’s the stories back into the Panthers ... where we have clinics, where we have stuff — because they built it.”
And now Helm and others in the movement for Black Lives say it’s their turn to see what they can build, in the streets and at kitchen tables, doctor’s offices and pharmacies.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.