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What I learned reporting on Sacramento's Black community amid a 'double pandemic'

What I learned reporting on Sacramento's Black community amid a 'double pandemic'

Picture of Genoa Barrow
(Photo by Russell Stiger, Jr./Observer)
(Photo by Russell Stiger, Jr./Observer)

The idea of invisibility is super cool, in theory. As a kid, you dream of having the ability to walk around undetected, being able to sneak a snack you’re not allowed to have, or listen in on a conversation not meant for your little ears. But in reality, not being seen or heard isn’t all that it's cracked up to be. Invisibility can have deadly consequences. 

With my three-part fellowship series, “Giving Ourselves A Shot,” I highlighted the Sacramento Black community’s assertion that it was tired of being ignored, tired of not having its needs met, and tired of dying.

Early on in the pandemic it became clear that African Americans across the county were being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. At the time that I began reporting on the series, only 3% of the vaccine doses given out in California had gone to African Americans. In Sacramento County, that number wasn’t much better at 4%. Time hasn’t improved matters much. Locally, African Americans hover around 7% of the vaccinations that had been given out in Sacramento County. That not equal to the percentage that Blacks make up of the population, and Blacks still make up 13% of all local COVID cases.

COVID-19 exasperated many disparities that already existed for people of color. Black leaders began speaking of the community being hit by a “double pandemic” — the coronavirus and systemic racism.

In my reporting for my 2021 California Fellowship project, my goal was to explore the reasons for the disproportional outcomes that we were seeing. I wanted to explore why there was so much debate over the vaccine and allocating other resources to communities that were hardest hit. What should have been a no-brainer was anything but.

During the course of my reporting, I Interviewed local Black neurosurgeon Dr. Kawanaa Carter, who has been an outspoken champion for vaccine access and equity. Dr. Carter, who has given up her private practice for the last 18 months to do this work, spoke eloquently about holding officials accountable with their own data.

Another Black physician, Dr. Beatrice Tettah, turned her clinic space into a testing site on Fridays. Local pastors like Rev. Les Simmons of South Sacramento Christian Center and Rev. Mark Meeks of City Church of Sacramento took the lead and turned their sanctuaries into vaccination clinics. At a time when some churches were arguing against mandates that forced them to remain closed for worship services, Rev. Meeks was imploring other faith-based leaders to get the shot, as he did, to encourage their own parishioners to get vaccinated. Meeks said that he was literally and figuratively willing to “die on that hill if that’s what it takes.”

Desperate times require bold action, Rev. Meeks says. 

Highlighting bold new voices

As I continued to cover the pandemic, I sought to lift up voices of Black doctors who have taken the lead by lending their knowledge and expertise to educate the community. They continue to battle a double pandemic of a different sort: Many are battling bureaucracy to gain equity for the community, and they also continue to battle members of the community, who remain largely unvaccinated. 

All speak of the importance of advocating for one’s own health and wellbeing. You may very well be invisible to officials, whose lives are far removed from yours, but you don’t have to remain so. 

In the wake of the 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement, there has been a great deal of focus on righting the wrongs of the past. Racism was recently declared a public health crisis by the CDC and Sacramento County followed suit.

Leaders argue that in order for the fervor to extend beyond the moment, officials must put their money where their mouths are. They must stop giving lip-service to the issue and start actually serving the communities they’re supposed to represent, even when the people who live there don’t look or live like they do. They must “see” those who they make decisions for. 

People of color still lack representation in decision-making spaces. There needs to be, not only a diversity of people, but a diversity of thought. If you don’t see or know any Black people, Black people’s needs and concerns aren’t likely to be on your radar. In their calls for action and accountability, it is common to hear activists say that those who don’t change their ways will be remembered, and replaced, come election time. We hope that more African Americans will turn threats into promises and run for public office. We’ve seen time and time again, throughout history, great things happen when Black folks say enough is enough.  

Since the “Giving Ourselves A Shot” series was published, we’ve received feedback in the form of calls and emails, from people thanking us for focusing on community-driven efforts and for saying what they hadn’t been able to.

It is our hope that officials take notice of how community members were left to their own devices and had to fight for the vaccine and other resources. Sometimes you have to hold a mirror up to people’s actions for them to see and finally “get it.” It will take continued reporting to see an impact. The Sacramento Observer is committed to doing that. I’m committed to that. Why? For the same reason that we, as a community, fight so hard for health equity. We can't afford not to. We can’t afford to remain invisible.

Reporting takeaways

Reporting for the fellowship is quite an undertaking, as it should be. For reporters embarking on a similar project, I offer up the following suggestions:

1) Immerse yourself in information on the topic you’re writing about. Search for and register for Zoom discussions that focus on the topic. It’s a great way to find more sources or source ideas for your stories.

2) Establish a rapport with public information officers. I always say, “If you don’t know, ask the PIO.” Make yours a familiar face and voice. Call them. Email them. Let the PIOs know you’re working on the story. Ask them who is the best person to speak with. 

3) Find out if officials in your area hold regularly scheduled media briefings. These sessions are a great way to hear up-to-date information, get quotes from hard-to-reach officials and find more sources for your stories, especially if the topic of your story isn’t in your traditional beat. 

4) Diversify your source pool. If you’re having a difficult time reaching the person you intended to quote or focus on, cast your net wider. There are big fish and little fish. Don’t underestimate the little fish and their ability to feed you what you need. Also, there are lots of experts, particularly ones of color, who often get overlooked by the media. 

5) Check numbers and recheck them.

6) Don’t be afraid to look dumb. Data can be intimidating and confusing, but it’s your job to break it down for readers. Don’t be afraid to ask experts for clarification for numbers, acronyms and other information that you don’t understand. Your writing will be better for it.

7) Try to bring in all members of the publishing process — editors, photographers, designers, copy editors — early and often. 

8) Data is important, but don’t forget to highlight the people behind the numbers.

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