“As a public spokesperson, I instinctively knew I could do something about this.”
COVID-19 has certainly made me aware there are things that, if I do not share them while I’m here, then I take them with me. If I can do something about this coronavirus while I’m sitting in my bed, then I need to do it. That is part of the reason I do this work. If I do not contribute to either significant or small change, then at least I tried.
When the virus first started to become public, I was in Yakima broadcasting state 1-A and 2-A basketball division championships with my radio station Rainier Avenue Radio. People were there from all over the state. Information began coming through the week of March 1. They started to put up sanitizing stations and places to wash your hands. People started acting a little more cautiously.
On March 6 or 7, 2020 we came down to Seattle to do the 3-A and 4-A state championship games. There was a basketball game between Garfield and Rainier Beach. A lot of the people were young and Black, and there was an overall sense that this wasn’t an issue. That’s one of the first things I noticed.
I didn’t know at the time that would be the last high school sport broadcast from Washington State to this day. Shortly after that – I think it was March 10 – the Governor started mandating that we stay at home. Everything began to change.
Right away, there was an awareness that – with whatever was coming – if it’s bad and if you’re Black or African American, we are going to bear the brunt of it. I didn’t know what that was going to look like yet, but I was sure it was going to hit us fast and hard, and that we were going to get the worst health care.
They were saying that Seattle and surrounding areas were the center of gravity of this pandemic (though we weren’t calling it a ‘pandemic’ at the time). We knew it was really Kirkland they were talking about. This made it a local, as well as a national challenge.
As a public spokesperson, I knew instinctively I could do something about this. Ultimately, my ability to do what I did was the recognition that our communities were going to need communication.
Rising to the Challenge
When the thing that you’re not expecting – the unknown – happens, that is the most critical time when a community needs to be aware of what’s taking place, who’s in trouble, where their resources are, and where their ability to get assistance is.
So, it wasn’t the pandemic that put me in action, but rather my 20-year career working with a major market radio station where my key function was to work with the community – and where my experience in media was about watching the systematic exclusion of communities.
And that’s one of the main reasons why you should broadcast in the interest of the community. When they can hear people who sound like them, look like them, and are imperfect like them, then they’ll listen and trust you. Why is that important? Because one day there is going to be an emergency – and that’s when you need a trusted communications network to share information.
When I left for Yakima and heard something was going on, I shut down the station. The station never re-opened. Because we are a digital-functioning station, as well as a physical manifestation of our community, I said immediately, “Everybody, we’re going to broadcast from home.”
I told them that we are now going to broadcast issues concerning our health as our number one priority. It can be their own show, it can be opinion-based – but in this instance, I am going to be far more critical about the information we share.
It was important that, as a radio station, we not facilitate any misinformation or share information that ultimately could be misinterpreted.
Getting the Facts
I immediately contacted the people I thought I needed to contact. I contacted King County Public Health to have them come on the radio station and give the facts as they knew them, so I could share them. I also contacted the Greater Seattle Business Association so I could share information with businesses about if there was an organized effort so people could keep their businesses alive.
I contacted service providers who work directly with agencies that offer the kind of wrap-around services people were going to need during this time – because nobody could go anywhere. I contacted our local schools too. On March 13, I had guests from each of these local organizations on the air, sharing what was going on at that time.
Rainier Avenue Radio Broadcasts COVID-19 Series
Reaching out to the community
How are we going to do this?
Our station had three buildings right next to each other that brought people together – Asian, Filipino, immigrants, Blacks, Whites – all from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. With the pandemic, that all stopped, and everybody was like, “Whoa. How are we going to do this?”
Listening to our community needs
We were unsure about a lot of things.
On March 10, the Governor started to say you couldn’t go here or there, or that businesses will need to close. Who would have thought in just two weeks our community would be crying for toilet paper? One of the first things we did was to reach out to Safeway… and then we were giving away toilet paper to the community!
Sharing information and resources
The big challenge was...
How do we get information from the people who have it, so we can share it? Especially when some of these entities probably do not know who we are or what we do? I immediately contacted the people I thought I needed to contact right away to get them on the air.
We may not have had all the bells and whistles and the baubles that some other media folks have – but we had trust within the community. I may not have had the finances, but I had a ton of community capital. Finding out what the community needs never goes out of style. It’s not the most topical thing that people are engaging in. But in a crisis? That’s when our community capital really comes into play.
We were providing schools in our community with training programs – with courses in journalism, app and web design, photography, film, and broadcast. We also had kids who had learned from us and were interning with us. That infrastructure was already in place and it became an advantage for us. It allowed us to do some of the things that hampered big media entities.
It quickly became apparent that we didn’t need to pack up a truck or bring equipment. All we needed was a cell phone – and we could get right in there with the information everyone needed.
COVID-19 has clearly made me aware of the holes in our society impacting Black people. I don’t know all the $25 words that people use – BIPOC, marginalized communities or people who are on the fringes of society. COVID-19 has exposed inequities that impact our communities, our people and us – individually and systemically. And it has exposed a number of different ways inequities happen.
When you’re listening to an educator from the local elementary school talk about what challenges they saw, they will say, “Well, most of our kids, they need to eat. Right now, I’m not thinking about teaching. I’m thinking about how we are going to feed some of these kids.
Of course, no one was thinking they needed computers or else how were they going to learn. That’s kind of important too, but there was a big emphasis on feeding kids.
Our Asian students – grade school, middle and high school – were already being discriminated against, spat on and called names. The Black students were saying they couldn’t get COVID-19 – and yet, that wasn’t part of our mainstream or local media conversation.
In the second week we were broadcasting, after tracking down the information that I had gathered, I realized that our community was not only not getting information, we were being told that COVID-19 was a primarily a White thing and that it happened to older people.
It also became apparent that this was not just happening in South Seattle. Because if we’re talking about Black people, BIPOC or marginalized communities, and they’re all alone, isolated, and in the dark about what’s going on, they needed to know that COVID-19 was happening everywhere.
Rainier Avenue Radio began to reach out to other local community leaders within different cultures and ethnicities. And then we started to find out early on that we were not all in the same boat.
What was being pushed was – 'We're all in this together. We got this.'No, we don't. We're experiencing this very, very, very, very differently. So, no, I'm not going to adopt a slogan that says, ‘We're all in this together.’ No, I'm not going to drop the universal slogan that says, ‘We got this.’ Some people have no idea what's going on.
Then shortly after that, you have George Floyd added to this whole mix of things. The pandemic at least created awareness, because it wasn’t until George Floyd that people began to say in a mainstream way, “Wait a minute. This is not all the same for everybody.”
If science is learning and adjusting to a new virus, then so is everybody else who is dealing with this. Learning is amazing and wonderful. It’s energizing.
In watching community members come together and build, in seeing folks try to address their personal inhibitions so we can be a more powerful, unified community, in watching leadership rise out of the ashes like a phoenix and with an awareness of injustices that have been in our society for hundreds of years… a number of things presented themselves as opportunities to engage and to learn.
And yes, sometimes, it’s overwhelming. Sometimes, it’s not my job. But for me the overriding factor is, it is always my responsibility to be the son that my mother raised.
People are starting to realize that their connection to the sphere of influence is not as far away as they thought it was. The sphere of influence could lie within you. The ability to connect your issues and concerns with the electoral process, the health care system, police brutality, reform, or education is not as far away as you think it is. And that provides people with real hope.
There’s a lot to learn right now. It’s not status quo. It’s not paint-by–numbers. It’s abstract – and I enjoy that. When I’m feeling tired, overwhelmed and lacking energy, I take a look at the wealth of opportunities out there that weren’t available before and I address them while watching other people address them. And all the while I feel like this is a very, very cool time to be alive.
– Told to South Seattle Emerald’s Marcus Harrison Green, December 2020
Support Rainier Avenue Radio, South Seattle’s community radio station and digital media hub with compelling stories on critical issues and programming created by members of the community. Watch the station’s special COVID-19 broadcast series to stay updated on the impacts of coronavirus on South Seattle and surrounding communities. Read more of their story on The Evergrey.
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