New York City, New York/USA June 2, 2020 Black Lives Matter Protest March demanding justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.

The Centrality of Social Movements in Addressing the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Malia Maier and Terry McGovern

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in higher rates of family violence. For advocates and funders, this provided important opportunities to partner with movements, including racial justice, Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Reproductive Justice, and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) movements.

We interviewed 24 GBV and SRHR service providers, advocacy organizations, and donors throughout the country to understand how the pandemic and concurrent racial justice movements were impacting critical GBV and SRHR services.

GBV organizations saw engaging with social movements as integral to their work and critical to long-term efforts to address violence. A GBV service provider from the Midwest said:

“To have racial justice and to have a world free of violence is part of the long game, because you can’t dismantle one system without also dismantling all of ‘em.”  

Donors too acknowledged this critical nexus. A funder in the Midwest GBV space noted:

“We cannot be an impactful foundation if we are not in relationship with the movement, both institutionally and personally.”

Service providers participated in protests to demonstrate solidarity, increase outreach, and distribute resources. A GBV service provider in the Midwest summarized:

“My co-workers and I feel that being part of these demonstrations and showing up for our community is important… [we] will go to these protests together, and wear our [organization name] shirts, like “this is who we are. If you need our help, we are here for you.’”

The protests also altered the dynamics in which care could be provided. Interviewees with facilities close to protest epicenters also expressed safety concerns for patients, shelter residents, and staff. A GBV service provider in the Midwest explained:

“We had about a 7-day period right after the murder of George Floyd where we moved everybody in the shelter to a separate safe location…there was a lot of street violence and unrest…so we took families and advocates out of the structure for about a week.”

An SRHR service provider in the Midwest was similarly impacted:

“We had to board our health center that was in the middle of where the protests were happening and buildings were burning.”

Service organizations reorganized and advocated within their organizations for more internal and external support for racial justice.  Staff who were impacted by the uprisings also needed additional support and accommodation.  This both created resilience in the organizations and encouraged groups to revamp priorities:

“We’ve had to institute self-care days…we pay a therapist for some of our staff members to support the movement and to support Black lives. Part of our work has changed in that white and other POC folks have taken on more. So that community, they’re not off. They’re out in the Black community organizing, helping get mutual aid to people in crisis.”

“It’s definitely directly affecting the team. And we know this because of the support group we have and the WhatsApp group where sometimes doulas are like it’s just hard being Black… But the team is doing a great job at it. Because we allow the space to feel what you need to feel.”

Advocacy organizations noted that the movements provided new entry points for conversations across sectors and increased grassroots engagement:

“We’ve had these issues at the heart of our thinking from the beginning… I think we may have shifted how direct we feel comfortable being in some of our messaging around it, ways of conveying information about race that might have felt, I don’t know, not what people were used to hearing. Now people are more used to hearing it, so it’s been a little easier for us to conduct some of those conversations, they go on a little smoother maybe than they might have.”

“One of the things that grew out of the uprising is a robust mutual aid effort and kind of community…It’s been reminiscent of ways people had to organize at a community level to get access to abortion. So I think that’s an interesting legacy from the uprisings…it just provides new entry points into those conversations about how to get resources to people.”

One SRHR service provider noted that the definition of reproductive health care expanded to include mental health as a result of Black Lives Matter (BLM):

“The birthing people we serve…they’re already living in a state of fear and have had intense trauma because of incarceration. And now there’s shooting of rubber bullets and fires and tanks in the street…and then everything was boarded. So, you couldn’t get basic necessities. Our team did an “inreach” and delivered things like diapers, medicine, prenatal vitamins, anything a postpartum woman would need to take care of her body after giving birth, some mental health support kits for people coming out of prison and struggling emotionally and maybe had a history of addiction and just trying to cope. So, “what is reproductive healthcare?” has sort of been expanded during this time to be more in the mental health area – which is a form of reproductive health care.”

Service providers and donors saw the movement as a call to action to reassess their own work, partnerships, and internal infrastructure:

“We’re…really trying to make more awareness among our staff about what does that really mean when we talk about reproductive justice, how does that impact our work. So just an awakening, even more, to Black Lives Matter. How can we be more diverse in our staffing? Is there some systematic way we don’t have medical assistants that are of color, or even Native American?….We’re reaching out to a lot of colleagues around the country and saying “What are you doing? How are you approaching this? Who are you bringing in as consultants?” ‘Cause we know we can’t do this on our own. We need to bring some experts in to help us look closely at ourselves and how our policies are written in a way that maybe creates barriers.” ­

For GBV service providers that had worked closely with law enforcement, BLM forced conversations about the role of police and often created tensions in organizations:

“The vice president of our Board is a cop. As soon as George Floyd was murdered, we tried to put out a release that said we stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and we are going to assess our relationship with the police in our community. But it never went anywhere, because we had to ask the Board if it could be released, and the cop said no. Everyone else on the Board said yes, but since he said no, they all met separately without our executive director, and basically discussed this, saying our relationship with the police is more important than this whole movement.”

This also included funders who saw that partnering with BLM was outside the scope of the work an organization was meant to do:

“Our Board is worried donors are going to pull their funds if we stand with the Black Lives Matter movement.”

On the other hand, some respondents described BLM as having little or no impact on their organizations. Staff were often disappointed by the lack of uptake by organizational leadership on issues of race.

“We should have had a more vocal presence in the movement, specifically because minorities are at a higher risk of being victims of sexual violence. There is a lot of intersectionality that happens with being a person of color and a woman.” ­

Our research shows that social movement activism is an integral part of service delivery for sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence. In the course of the racial justice uprisings, staff and advocates at SRHR and GBV organizations sought out opportunities to strengthen their own organizations in response.

Malia Maier, MPH is a Senior Program Officer in the Global Health Justice and Governance Program at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Terry McGovern, JD is Chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Director of the Global Health Justice and Governance Program.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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