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More Stories from Our Community

Read more stories about communities coming together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sharing Critical Information

©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“People in power, people who have resources and are making the decisions, they have to step up and do something.”

Paula Houston (she/her) | Chief Equity Officer for UW Medicine in the Office of Healthcare Equity

In the Office of Healthcare Equity, our work before the pandemic was focused on making sure UW Medicine reaches the right people at the right time and in the right way, given that there are racist structures in place that disadvantage people of color and create health disparities – particularly for Black people.

Early on, it became clear to me and my team that COVID-19 would spotlight inequities in our healthcare system. One of our hospitals, Harborview, began collecting data on who was coming in for testing and what the positivity rates were by race, ethnicity, language, and housing status. Pretty quickly, we were able to see that our Black and Brown patients were experiencing stark disproportionality in infections and hospitalizations, specifically those who are Spanish-speaking and those who live in south Seattle, south King County.

Through COVID-19 response emergency funds, we opened our first testing site at Rainier Beach. Initially, people weren’t familiar with UW Medicine, but because I live in Rainier Beach and a colleague is also a south Seattle resident, we were able to leverage relationships built over the last 25 years. We met with 17 different community groups to explain why we were bringing COVID-19 testing to the community. We also saw some big disproportionality in Asian Pacific Islander communities, so we worked with the community health board that represents that community to set up some testing sites.

When it came time to shift our focus from testing to vaccines, we knew community education would be important. What we did not realize immediately was that we would need to begin that community education with our own workforce, particularly frontline workers with limited English proficiency. We wanted to ensure that they had the best information to make a decision right for themselves about getting the vaccine and, by extension, help their families and community also be accepting of getting the vaccine. So, we worked with clinician providers and interpreters who spoke 16 languages to create informational videos we called “Community Conversations- Straight Talk on Vaccines”. We encouraged staff to invite family and friends to participate and posted them on our YouTube site for anyone who wanted to use them.

Now, we do mobile vaccines and pop-up clinics all over King County, with a particular focus on South Seattle and South King County. This summer, we had a presence at the Juneteenth event held at Jimmy Hendrix Park in partnership with the Tubman Center for Health. They called it their Blaxinnation event. It was really informative to hear firsthand what some of the hesitation about vaccines is among the community. It helps to know how to give them all the information they need, instead of making them feel coerced. Our messaging is to say, “Vaccines are what’s going to help us get out of this pandemic. And until we are, you’ll want to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your community.”

It’s intense, heavy work. Where I find my mental health therapy and where I get my emotional and spiritual reward, quite honestly, is in powerlifting. When I’m at the gym, I leave everything behind. When gyms closed due to the pandemic, many of us started makeshift workouts in our homes. A small group of us who are masters-level lifters and mostly over 50 were talking, and one teammate said, “What if we could borrow some weights from the gym and just set up our gym in my backyard?” And that’s what we did. At the time, everyone I saw was on Zoom, but I would see my gym community in-person to lift. It was time I really held sacred – and most of us hit several personal lifting records during the pandemic.

I continue to work in healthcare equity because I am beginning to see progress in reducing health disparities as we begin to dismantle white supremacist systems in our institutions that perpetuate inequities. We’re doing that by providing education and showing the data that has previously not been collected or collected and ignored. I want to be able to change the narrative about healthcare inequity and health disparities, to show that they are real. And I want to have the narrative backed up by evidence, to motivate people into action for change.

-As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, July 2021

Yubi dressed in grey and black standing in a parking lot

Yubi © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Chloe Collyer

“Young people are the now.”

Yubi Mamiya (she/her) | Junior at Shorewood High School, Director of Community Outreach at Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council, Founder of neXt Education App, and Youth Ambassador at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center

This pandemic, as well as my work on the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council (LYAC), has shown me just how powerful young people are. I’ve heard countless speakers and legislators say, “Young people are the future.” But I think that young people are the NOW. We can make change right now.

My whole goal as the Director of Community Outreach at LYAC is to advocate for youth-driven, change-making advocacy and civic engagement, because I want to give all young people equitable opportunities for the future. This starts young. It starts in our education system, just as it did for me.

In my role, I lobby for and testify on pieces of legislation that give young people, in particular marginalized students, a solid basis in real resources – whether that’s funding, technology devices, or inclusive curriculum – so as a society we’re able to deliver on an equitable education. With my nonprofit, the free neXt Education App, I focus on making learning opportunities accessible to marginalized students who may not have that now – by putting it online and making it personalized.

I hope that other young people will see and know that their voice is powerful, and that no one is going to hear it until they start sharing it.

– Told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald February 2021 

Essential Workers Meeting Everyday Needs

Ryan dressed in his EMT uniform standing in front of a red fire truck

Ryan © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“My biggest fear and concern was bringing this virus back home to my family.”

Ryan Sheaffer (he/him) | Firefighter and EMT, Kirkland Fire Department

As a Firefighter and EMT for the Kirkland Fire Department, there are many things that we train for, but there was no blueprint for a pandemic. It was in these first few weeks that I felt the biggest impact of the pandemic. Two or three days in, we had to perform CPR on a COVID-19-positive patient at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, where the outbreak first occurred and where there were a lot of COVID-19 patients and several deaths.

Over the years, in my career as a firefighter, I’ve noticed that most people have a lot of respect and gratitude towards this profession. But last year, for the first time in my life during the pandemic, I felt somewhat ostracized for being a firefighter. There was fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. A lot of that was because of the unknown. We didn’t know how easily the virus was transmitted, or if the PPE was going to protect us. My biggest fear was not necessarily about contracting the virus myself, but about bringing it back home to my family.

We knew that signing up for this career meant dealing with any manner of first response. So, even though we hadn’t planned for this pandemic, responding to it was in our wheelhouse. Somebody needed to go out there and do the job – and to everyone’s credit, we did it.

It has been a really difficult time, but my family has always been there for me. I choose to look at this as a reset – a place to grow and learn from. The reality is that we need hope. Without hope, we don’t have much else. And I hope that this puts us in a better position as individuals and as a society when we come out of this on the other&nbsp:side.

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in March 2021

Kelvin wearing his King County Metro uniform standing in front of a Metro bus

Kelvin © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“My job has been to safely transport my passengers to their destinations.”

Kelvin Kirkpatrick (he/him) | Bus Driver, King County Metro

As a King County Metro bus driver for 27 years, my job has been to safely transport my passengers to their destinations while monitoring situations inside and outside the coach.

Working so closely with the public, the word that comes to mind for what I experienced at the start of the pandemic is fear. I was immediately afraid for my son with autism who is susceptible to getting sick easily. Although the union stepped in to ease fears, without knowing much about COVID-19, I didn’t feel comfortable coming to work – and I couldn’t even take precautions, as masks were sold out. So, do I call in sick? Do I wait until we know more and can figure this out? Financially, I didn’t have the luxury to wait it out. I had to go into work and hope for the best.

What has stood out to me during this time is that the “public” – people who work as janitors or who work in fast food restaurants or grocery stores, people who may not have the luxury to work from home, and those who are doing everything to make ends meet and may not have enough to pay bus fare – they are very thankful we are operating. Every time an elderly passenger steps out, they go out of their way to wave or give us a thumbs up for our work. That makes me feel good.

I hope people take advantage of the vaccination process – and that we can get back on our feet and rebuild our economy. We’ve had to cut a lot of service and lay off more than a hundred drivers because we couldn’t run empty buses. I hope we can bring those drivers back because they have families and bills too. When the economy rebounds, job security is good for people like me. It’s the positive growth we need.

I hope we can work our way out over time … so we can look back at this and say, “We went through it, but we made it.”

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in March 2021

Richard wearing a Seattle t-shirt standing in front of Seward Park Market

Richard © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“I feel a sense of duty that drives me to be here.”

Richard Chung (he/him) |Owner, Seward Park Market

As a Korean American born in Portland, Oregon, community has always been important to me. My father has been a community member his whole life, and I’ve always looked up to him. My father raised me by himself since I was 12. He has always been there for me and pushes me in a positive way. He started the Seward Park Market, building it from the ground up. With him aging, I took up his job. The work never stops, but it also gives purpose to be so deeply connected with the community.

I feel like the pandemic brought our communities closer together. When COVID-19 hit, stores like Safeway had limited hours. Since we’re one of the only independent stores nearby, we had a lot of people coming in for bare necessities, like toilet paper or masks. It was challenging to keep up with the supply and demand, but hopefully we provided everything they needed – or at least as much as we could.

As owner and operator, my job is making sure everyone gets the necessities and resources they need, seven days a week. I also like to check in and make sure our customers are in good health. Most of them feel like family since I’m here all the time, and they come in always to support our business. I feel a sense of duty that drives me to be here.

I feel blessed to be in a job where I get to interact with people all the time – even if it’s just asking how they’re doing or how their day has been. These kinds of interactions, especially in a tough time, are one way we can do something to help one another.

I do my best to make sure everyone gets along. It can sometimes get challenging. We had a fight turn into a physical altercation because someone didn’t want to socially distance inside our store. I only see this increasing with summer around the corner and more people venturing out. But even if they’re mean to me or trying to get violent, I calm the situation down. I don’t raise my voice and I find another solution.

I hope this pandemic ends soon … but until then, I hope everybody loves and checks in with each other and does as much as they can to help one another. That’s the only way I feel we can break out of COVID-19.

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in April 2021

Meeting the Needs of the Community

Dionna standing on a gravel rural road smiling in a black dress

Dionna ©️ Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“For tribal people, everybody’s related, everybody’s linked.”

Dionna Bennett (she/her), Program Director of Campbell Farm

I live in Wapato, located on the Yakama Indian reservation where I work as the program director at the Campbell Farm, a working farm and retreat center. I’ve been working here for the past 12 years in different capacities.

The farm has always been a safe haven. As a Wapato tribal member and African American, it’s a blessing to me and our community that the farm is a constant presence that has not gone away, that it continues to be a resource. It has brought food and love and care. The “give-back” is very real, and I’m passionate about it, especially for our kids and youth. I have a big passion about meeting our youth where they are and empowering them to do something great for themselves.

For tribal people, everybody’s related, everybody’s linked. We lost a lot of people from complications with COVID-19 – and from mental health issues. It’s forced me to really step up and look outside of the box to see how we can help people, how we get to people where they need us.

We’ve always served meals. Wapato is 96% at or below poverty. That’s a really huge number. At least half live in food deserts, which means that the nearest grocery store is at least 20 minutes away. Most rely on school food programs – but then the school shuts down because of the pandemic. So, we started serving meals and even just leaving meals on doorsteps. Because we follow a lot of the school district style, every component was met. Everyone got a protein, a fruit, vegetable and a starch. Within a month, no one ever received the same meal twice – and everything was prepared from scratch. It took a lot of time and a lot of love.

Soon, we decided to start serving the elders too. Because there’s such a need, we grew programming from serving children to serving this larger population. We were serving anywhere from 300 to 400 meals a day.

Our community work grew as the pandemic continued. Our society is already set up for failure for our people. It just made it that much more difficult to see and hear the judgments of outsiders being passed onto our reservation. There are all these judgements, and it makes me emotional to feel the weight of all these judgments.

In many places, domestic violence was on the rise with the lockdown and isolation. We realized that we have a lot of domestic violence, so we started to help moms who need safety plans and extra support in this pandemic – and going forward.

We also started the New Mothers’ Program to combat the high infant mortality rate that indigenous people face. We have only one hospital on the reservation, and it takes 30 or 40 minutes to get to that one hospital – so we partnered with the Pacific Northwest Medical Institute here. They offer clinical support via Zoom phone calls. We have some nurses through the Children’s Village clinic who can help answer questions. We also went out to churches and got diapers, wipes and formula donated.

When the homeless shelter closed down in Wapato, it meant that the nearest shelter was 60 miles away. There was no place for homeless people once they closed, so we started serving them too.

I figure, at some point, I will take a break from it all once things really slow down … but you don’t think about that when you’re in the midst of it. You just do it because it needs to be done. And when you’ve lived here for as long as I have, because this is a community I’ve been born and raised in, you can’t stop because you don’t want somebody to suffer.

I get hopeful watching things kind of slowly go back to normal. Watching kids graduate from high school, seeing new life – babies who were born during this pandemic time – that all gives me hope.

As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, June 2021

“Despite the struggles during this time, we’re still able to rally around each other and build up the causes we believe in.”

Kyle Melendez Daigre (he/him) | Student at ArtCenter College of Design, CA, and Exhibiting Artist & Volunteer at Onyx Fine Arts

I was in school at the ArtCenter College of Design in California last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I’ve been home in Seattle since June 2020. With campus closing and everything shifting online, the collaborative process of art and artistic communities – normally an integral part of my classes – has been deeply impacted.

What was also concerning to me was that the future of Gallery Onyx, a local non-profit arts collective in Pacific Place Downtown dedicated to showcasing and celebrating artists of African descent in the Pacific Northwest, was also in peril.

I feel strongly about the importance and need for art in our communities, especially art from those that have been historically underrepresented or ignored. I’ve been a part of Onyx since I was 16. As an exhibiting artist and someone who helps prepare walls and set-up and take-down art and provides input on marketing, social media and visual aesthetics, I continued to volunteer even after I started college.

For most of 2020, there was a lot of uncertainty. Pacific Place was practically empty – and many volunteers no longer felt comfortable coming in. It was very difficult to go overnight from selling art constantly and having tons of visitors, to having nothing.

As stores opened up and foot traffic in the mall started to increase, new volunteers stepped up to help. Onyx has given me the opportunity to learn, grow and press forward on the career path I’ve chosen – and I wanted that same opportunity to be given to as many artists as possible. It’s essential to help build equity in the industry.

What I learned from this experience is the importance of a strong community. Artists who bring their work in, organizations that donate and give exposure to the gallery, and people who visit and volunteer – all of these are part of why it was possible for the collective behind Gallery Onyx to push through such a difficult time.

This pandemic has flipped everything upside down and shown how important community support is for both people and businesses rooted within those communities. It’s great that despite the struggles during this time, we are still able to rally around each other and build up the causes we believe in. This pandemic won’t last forever. It’s important to be resilient and keep supporting the people who make positive impacts on our communities to benefit both the present and the future.

Kyle standing on the beach in front of Haystack rock

Kyle © Debi Gerstel

“The world is a better place when we’re not satisfied by mediocrity.”

Kyle Gerstel (he/him) | Student at Islander Middle School and Founder of KMG Center

I’m a 14-year-old musical theater geek who, when not doing schoolwork, lives and breathes theatre. However, the unfortunate but necessary halting of live theater demolished most of my life outside of school, much like Éponine’s love life in Les Misérables.

This inspired me to create theatrical opportunities for teens to stay safe, creative and connected during this moment of darkness. By creating opportunities to tell stories, I’ve been able to experience more theater and give back to the community that cultivated my love for it.

During the pandemic, I founded an experimental online improv troupe called Chimprov and I’m currently directing my middle school’s first musical in over a decade. I also wrote, directed and edited a 10-person online musical comedy called “Hamleton: A Quaranteen’d Musical.” Although I truly love Shakespeare’s stories, I wanted to make them more accessible by writing a piece that addresses the same themes while translating them to a modern setting.

The idea for Hamleton began in April 2020 when I was trying to find a new longform writing project as well as an excuse to see my friends (it was and is very difficult to get teenagers on a “social Zoom call.”) Rehearsals were held over Zoom, and the final performance can be found on YouTube.

For creators, performers and audience members alike, storytelling enriches our perspective of the world in addition to bringing us joy. My advice for others is that if you see something you want to change, find a creative way to change it. The world is a better place when we’re not satisfied by mediocrity.

“You are never too young to make a difference.”

Anika Consul (she/her) | Co-Founder of (You)th Cook, Student at Nikola Tesla STEM High School Class of ’21, Rising Freshman at University of Washington, and Youth Ambassador at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center

I never imagined something like COVID-19 could happen. Initially, when schools closed, an extra-long spring break sounded like a dream come true for a high school junior. But by the end of March, no one knew what was going to happen.

Then I saw businesses close and a rise in unemployment and food insecurity. I knew I couldn’t just hope things would get better; I needed to actively work to make it happen. While baking virtually over FaceTime one day, my friends Anisha Karnik, Ananya Nandula and I came up with the idea of using cooking and baking for a cause.

That’s how our community service organization was born. Through You(th) Cook, we cook meals weekly and donate them to shelters in need across the Greater Seattle Area. We’ve provided over 3,500 nourishing, healthy and wholesome meals to The Sophia Way, Tent City, Helen’s Place, Congregations for the Homeless, the New Bethlehem Day Center and other homeless shelters across the Eastside of Seattle.

When it was announced that the 2020-21 school year was going fully online, we also reached out to elementary school teachers in the district and created a mini-baking curriculum to educate young learners about the science behind food through hands-on baking projects.

By starting You(th) Cook, I had the incredible opportunity to help others in need – and I learned how to mobilize my community during such an unprecedented time.

Its success only reinforced my belief that you are never too young to make a difference.

This work is important to me. I think of it like the domino effect – if you do something kind for one person, they’re likely to do the same for someone else. It creates a chain reaction of kindness. Seeing so many people reaching out through our initiative has been inspiring. It gives me hope that humanity has exceptional power to come together and conquer anything.

Alyssa ©️ Jennifer Winter Photography

“The world put us online because they couldn’t handle us in person.”

Alyssa Jiwani (she/her) | Student at New York University Tisch School of Drama, Founder and Artistic Director of The Virtual Theatre Co, Overlake School, Redmond Class of ’20

I still cannot wrap my head around what happened in the last year. It feels like the world flipped upside down within weeks.

I was a graduating senior in the class of 2020 at the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington. The closing night of my senior musical was on March 8, 2020. It was my 19th and final show over the course of seven years. After that night, I never went back to Overlake again and I never got to hug friends or teachers again.

When the rest the school year was cancelled, I missed Overlake’s annual benefit concert, which I’ve led for the past few years. I decided to move it online to a huge, live-streamed concert benefitting Feeding America’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. I edited together performances from all of Overlake – 5th to 12th grade, faculty and alumni. We raised over $15,000 for COVID-19 relief. It was a heartwarming end to my time at Overlake.

Theatre and art got me through the trials and tribulations of high school, so when I heard from friends that their schools were canceling productions – and some schools were even defunding arts programs – I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine going through high school without that light.

Then I remembered how I put together the virtual benefit concert and realized that online theatre was a lot more plausible than people realized. I had a lightbulb then to create The Virtual Theatre Co (TVTC).

With its launch in July 2020, TVTC offers classes, productions and workshops. We have students from over 10 countries from around the world. Members of our creative team are working professionals in the theatre industry and theatre students from top-performing arts universities in the country. I run a workshop called Everything Broadway where we bring in Broadway stars, and students work with their inspirations. We’ve had Tony Award-nominee Taylor Louderman, TikTok star JJ Niemann, Wicked’s Jennifer DiNoia, Hayley Podschun, and DJ Plunkett, Mean Girls’ Mariah Rose Faith, Krystina Alabado, Kyle Selig, Cailen Fu, Frozen’s Caroline Bowman, Hannah Jewel Kohn and more.

One of our mottos is that the world put us online because they couldn’t handle us in person … and it’s true! Growing up, I was never represented on stage or on screen. I’m a young, short, tiny brown girl. I didn’t get opportunities handed to me, whatsoever – and I desperately want to change that for future generations.

Fighting inequity is the basis of TVTC, with its three main pillars to increase accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity. At TVTC, we are all trying to change the theatre industry for the better.

Theatre has the ability to be one of the biggest methods of change in our world. The younger generation of artists are coming in strong, and I’m excited about the future. Our generation is truly unstoppable.

Ming-Ming wearing a black top with pink and white flowers standing in front of shelves of colored fabric.

Ming-Ming © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“This was a community effort with one goal: To fight COVID-19.”

Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman (she/her) | Founder and Executive Director, Refugee Artisan Initiative

After 25 years of being a clinical pharmacist, I always wanted to give back to my community.

As an immigrant from Taiwan who came to the United States about 35years ago, I understand what it means to give a woman tools and skills to become self-sufficient and be financially Independent. My own grandma, a single mother raising three children as a seamstress inspired me that tools, plus skills can transform lives.  Five years ago, I founded the Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI). We employ refugee and immigrant women and train them in artisan skills and small-batch manufacturing so they can build better lives for themselves and their families.

The pandemic has been transformative for us. When COVID-19 first hit in March 2020, we were able to realize our strengths and pivot very quickly to provide what the community needed. Suddenly, sewing became a very valuable skill … to make masks, medical scrubs and face shields.

Since we are upcyclers with a lot of donated fabric – like, stacks of 100% cotton bedsheets, donated from California Design DEN – we had the best material to make masks to protect our community against COVID-19. I designed them in a day and put out our first GoFundMe campaign. Within two days, we raised over $10,000 then received a match of $10,000 from Rotary Club of Seattle NE. This enabled us to make more than 5,000 masks a week. A few husbands even helped! This was a community effort with the same goal: to fight COVID-19. We sent masks to postal workers – and across the country to New York and to the Navajo Nation which were hit hard by the pandemic. Partnering with Swedish Health System and their Community Health Investment we are making medical scrubs. All these opportunities allow us to hire more refugee and immigrant women coming to Seattle and using their sewing skills to make critical items while supporting for their families.

Living in a supportive community where people want to make a difference only motivates me more.

This year has shown human resiliency – and I hope it has also been a time of reflection. We can wear multi-layered masks and N-95s, but an actual vaccine can create immunity and stop the virus. That has given me a hope that we will come out at the end of the tunnel – and surprise ourselves by seeing that the sky is brighter and bluer.

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in April 2021

Fighting and Treating COVID-19

©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Charina Pitzel

“We can’t deny we are globally connected.”

Pavitra Roychoudhury (she/her), Computational Biologist, University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

I’m a computational biologist at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. My specialty is working with the genomes of viruses, which means analyzing the nucleic acids, that’s DNA or RNA, in a virus.

From the beginning of the pandemic, my colleagues recognized the need to sequence the virus. Before COVID-19, I was working with human herpes viruses, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), so I was able to apply those skills to SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19.

February 28th was the day the first SARS-CoV-2 test sample arrived in our lab. We put it on our sequencer as fast as we could and by the next day we had analyzed our first genome – “UW1”–which was the third genome for Washington state.

When you get tested, you’re given a nasal swab which is then processed for your test result. If it’s positive, we take that sample and use lab techniques, mathematics and computing tools to determine the genetic sequence – or genome – of the virus in that sample. Initially, there was intense interest in using genetic sequencing to understand if cases were from travel or local transmission – and if local, how much community transmission has there been? But even back in March 2020, we knew we were behind in this pandemic. We knew the horse had left the barn – and bolted.

Then, for a large part of 2020, we thought this virus was behaving in a somewhat expected manner, but towards the end of the year, we saw variants come out of the UK and elsewhere that were spreading rapidly. We realized we were flying blind here in the US because of how few positive tests were sequenced. When you hear about variants, it’s the genetic sequence of virus samples that gives clues into what might be happening. Different mutations might impact disease severity or infectiousness, or they might indicate if the virus is escaping vaccines. The new variants really made us focus on sequencing, to scale-up our efforts.

People used to say things like, “Why aren’t we sequencing more and faster?,” but the reality is that in addition to a lack of funding and support, a lot of us have experienced burnout. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve worked hard while taking only a little bit of time off. Because our lab is a testing lab, we are considered essential workers. For all essential workers, a huge amount of credit needs to be given to families and support networks. For me, that’s my husband and my daughter. My daughter is five and she really gets it. That it takes a village––at work, at home, and in the community – to come together to fight this pandemic.

Vaccines have shown that they are the greatest tool in tackling this pandemic. Without the genetic sequence of the virus, we would not have been able to design the vaccines we have right now. And yet there are huge inequities related to vaccine availability and distribution and uptake. As community members, we need to see what we can do to convince those who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated. Sometimes people are quick to point the finger at the unvaccinated and say, “Oh, these people are just choosing to be unvaccinated.” But not all unvaccinated people are driven by misinformation; for some, there are barriers, including structural issues. Can people take time off to recover the day after they receive their shot? Have we created safe spaces for people to do that, or to bring up any concerns they have? Because a lot of them are valid concerns and I think there are many things that we can do to address some of these inequities.

There’s still more to be done to make sure we turn the corner with COVID-19. People should recognize that, when we talk about travel restrictions and all the inconveniences related to the pandemic, there are populations that are still vulnerable to this disease – here and globally. Let’s not forget children all around the world are still not eligible for vaccination. Because we are connected, outbreaks in all those populations will ultimately impact us, so we need to think beyond our local communities.  That’s going to make a difference over the next few months in this pandemic – and in future pandemics.

What gives me hope is science and the speed at which we have been able to tackle COVID-19. It’s the result of a lot of people coming together, often at great cost to themselves, and taking on incredible amounts of responsibility. For this pandemic and any other pandemic, what’s needed is for us to come together and take whatever skills we have and put them to good use.

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in April 2021

©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“This pandemic can ground us back in our humanity.”

Robin Martin (she/her) | Deputy Director of Strategy Planning and Management, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Every day, I get up and say, no matter what position I’m in, how do I become a part of the change I really want to see? For me, it always comes back to how my own humanity is connected to everyone else.

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a family of four – two boys, two girls. We were primarily raised by my mother, a single mother, who has always served as my inspiration. I was the first to attend and graduate college, so the lesson has always been clear to me: it takes just one person to create multi-generational change in our families.

During a little storm called Katrina, I was the athletic director at Dillard University. Katrina was my grounding moment. It didn’t matter what education you had or how much money you had, we were all standing in the FEMA line. I also saw the public response to Hurricane Katrina. People saw us as “others.” They called us refugees. In that moment, I began to want to understand when leadership worked – and when it didn’t really work, particularly for people of color. I decided then to go back and get a doctoral degree in educational leadership because I wanted to study the impact of leadership around community. I decided, “I really want to change the world.”

The foundation’s COVID-19 investment in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has been my way of saying, “What is in my sphere of control?” In my current role, I run the day-to-day operations for the post-secondary success team. When the pandemic started, we knew it would have disproportionate impacts on students of color across the country. We knew many students didn’t have means to get back home, where family members were already disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We knew HBCUs would be disproportionately impacted because of a lack of access to digital learning. So, I went to my director and said, “We have an opportunity to think about the impacts of COVID-19 on HBCUs and their students – and we have an opportunity to ensure that students are safe and return to school safely, so we can prevent more stop-outs and dropouts.”

A friend told me about the Just Project, which provided COVID-19 testing support for HBCUs. Because most HBCUs are sitting in and supporting communities of color, they already have a positive reputation in helping communities. I thought, this is one way the foundation can really leverage its power and dollars to be intentional around supporting communities of color.

HBCU support for public health was not a part of the foundation’s core strategy or things we work on in the day-to-day inside the post-secondary success team. This was a new effort – but it was needed.

We created a new network of support through an investment of $15 million in eight different institutions that all had the medical infrastructure to provide comprehensive testing, testing support and tracking for HBCUs. Then, those eight campuses then became hubs and spokes to support other HBCUs around the country. Now, HBCUs are building infrastructure to help communities become more vaccinated – and become more educated about health concerns and health disparities. That investment has allowed us to have a broader conversation around how to leverage HBCUs and Black and Brown knowledge to help communities of color find the help they need.

Part of my dissertation was on an African philosophy called Ubuntu. Ubuntu means, “I am because you are, you are because I am.” We’re struggling to achieve this thinking during this pandemic. But we need to see that our health is connected to everyone’s health – and not just locally, but also across the globe. 600,000 people needlessly died across our country over the last year in a country that has some of the best medical research and assets in the world. Meanwhile, there’s also a housing crisis and an economic crisis. We have chosen privileged capitalism and racism over ensuring that all people have access. At the same time, less than two percent of people on the continent of Africa have been fully vaccinated. Morally, we’ve lost our way if we think that that is okay.

If change is going to happen, we need audacious goals and efforts. We say, “I hope tomorrow will be better” – and yet that hope gives us an easy path to not actually act. If we were all taking some small action to see our own humanity and see how it is tied to other people, to see that we can take action in relation to a global community, then this world would be a better place.

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in April 2021

Dr. Jesse Bloom wearing a lab coat in a medical lab

Jesse © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alex Garland

“When most people are vaccinated, this could be a lot less serious.”

Dr. Jesse Bloom (he/him) | Associate Professor, Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, Affiliate Associate Professor, Genome Sciences & Microbiology, University of Washington, and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

I was always interested in evolution and how things change. As a scientist and faculty at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center for 10 years, I now study viruses and how they evolve.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we studied a lot of viruses, including influenza and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). When we started to hear reports of an outbreak in China, it was clear to someone who studies viruses that this was going to spread. It was then that I started to think about how we could switch our research to study the coronavirus.

Currently, my lab is focused on understanding how coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 evolve. This helps determine if immunity will be long-lasting or not. With some viruses (like measles), people are protected for their entire life once they get a vaccine or infection; for others (like influenza), the virus evolves and is eventually able to re-infect. Common cold coronaviruses evolve to erode immunity, which is part of the reason that people are re-infected every three to five years.

One challenge I faced during the pandemic was that the research needed to be done quickly and everything mattered. But knowledge only goes so far and must be combined with action – which explains in part the despair many felt from the government’s overall response. Now the concern is that people should have access to the vaccine – and actually take it.

I don’t think COVID-19 is going away. And yet, while I don’t think we’re going to be able to totally stop thinking about it, it could be a lot less serious once most people are vaccinated. The virus’ transmission could be cut down a lot, and there will be a lesser risk for getting really sick.

People are working very hard on this. To be at the forefront in helping people understand this virus, as a scientist, has been really rewarding for me. I feel like I’m doing stuff that matters, that makes a difference – something that people care about.

This time has drawn out how important different contributions are to keep the society functioning, from doctors and nurses to first responders and essential workers. It makes me really appreciate how all of society needs to click together to make it through something like this.

– As told to Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald, in April 2021

Spreading Joy and Healing

Linda © Jacy Watson

“I realized the importance of creating third spaces – spaces outside of home and work that are nurturing and accessible to all.”

Linda Yan (she/her) | High School Senior at Bellevue High School, Intern at Northwest Folklife and Penguin Productions, Co-President of Model United Nations Club

March 2020 feels like a month and a lifetime ago. When news broke that we weren’t returning to school anytime soon, I was paralyzed. As a high school senior deeply interested in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) who’s also the captain of my school’s cross-country team and co-president of our Model United Nations (MUN) club, I found my daily routine completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from extracurricular activities, my average school day was reduced from seven hours to three – and this new reality wasn’t going to disappear in a few weeks. I was suddenly left with a lot of time that I needed to fill.

Along with many young leaders in my community, we knew we had to pivot. I began working for nonprofit organizations like Helpful Engineering, a global open-source medical device incubator, and Penguin Productions, a Seattle-based youth-led theater company run by Northwest Folklife.

It’s important to me that I create what I want to see in my community. With many of us experiencing alienation and loneliness during this time, I realized the importance of creating third spaces – spaces outside of home and work that are nurturing and accessible to all.

We began experimenting with several platforms to find one that suits our needs to host virtual MUN conferences. I find it incredibly empowering for adolescents like me to discuss and seek solutions at the MUN for critical world issues like climate change and the global refugee crisis.

Whether it’s at a cross-country race or a MUN conference, I love seeing joy in people’s faces. Witnessing the world persist and abide, despite all the tragedies that are occurring every day, is something that gives me lot of hope.

I’d like to believe that a lot of the things that we miss, such as hugging loved ones and going to the theater, are simply wintering, and that we will (hopefully soon) dust off the snow and enjoy them once again. At the end of the day, I think my greatest accomplishment this past year has been simply surviving.

“We believe it’s the little things that count.”

Ayla Karmali (she/her) | Junior at Newport High School, Co-coordinator of Greater Seattle Acts of Random Kindness

As a busy high school student, my days were packed with activities – but when COVID-19 hit, that all stopped. I began reflecting on what really matters in life. To me, that was connecting with people.

It became clear that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people didn’t have moments of happiness or connection with others.

In June 2020, we founded the Greater Seattle Acts of Random Kindness (ARK). My team and I reflected on what our community needed most during this time. With a lack of connection and community due to remote working and online learning, we made it our mission to give our community a sense of joy that so many of us were lacking.

We believe it’s the little things that count. We’re currently working on a project called “Chalk the Streets: Spread Kindness through Art.” We set up chalk in baskets across Bellevue, encouraging people walking by to draw or write something that makes them smile.

I love that that you don’t need a lot of money to do something joyful.

We’ve also facilitated the creation of multiple ARK clubs around Seattle, whose members have made cards for senior centers, healthcare workers and people experiencing homelessness, and notes and gifts to encourage teachers and students during this isolating time.

Through the Greater Seattle ARK projects, I see the smiles we put on faces within our community. I like to think that for every smile, there is someone who might be empowered to achieve something new or find strength to power through one more day.

Rhea ©️ Shweta Kulkarni

“Art became my outlet to express this change.”

Rhea Kulkarni (she/her) | Student at Skyline High School, Founder of The Photo 4 Good L.L.C, and Youth Ambassador at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center

COVID-19 has made me aware of the disadvantages and inequalities of opportunity people face. While staying home and quarantining, I had time to learn about and reflect on those most affected by the pandemic.

The burden of disease is never equal in society.

Living close to Seattle—the third most homeless-populated city in the country—I saw the epidemic first-hand throughout our streets. I saw people experiencing homelessness were at a greater risk of contracting the virus.

I wanted to work towards changing it, and art became my outlet. I realized that art—and photography, in particular—can bring awareness to how the homeless epidemic that my community faces was especially impacted by the pandemic.

I founded The Photo 4 Good L.L.C. in the spring of 2020 to contribute to and foster a safe environment for the homeless youth community in Seattle through art. When you purchase art on the site, all profits go to Teen Feed, a Seattle-based nonprofit shelter for homeless teens that provides youth with basic needs – healthy meals, access to healthcare and street outreach.

My photographs are a way to express myself and bring awareness to the importance of art in social activism. Because of the intersectionality between artwork and activism, art can be a means to help our homeless communities.

While I am grateful for the opportunities I have for a successful life, I believe every child, regardless of their upbringing, deserves this too.