What we need is action: Reflections on King County’s pandemic response

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An interview with Bereket Kiros, written by Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno

Note: The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the inequities that communities of color face. Public Health recognized early in 2020 that this would happen, because it is what always happens when diseases intersect with structural racism. From that recognition – plus the need for feedback and to address impacts across sectors – a Pandemic Community Advisory Group was born. The group’s structure reflects previous experience in King County.  It includes leaders from not only community, business, education and corporate sectors, but also communities that have been marginalized by institutions, particularly immigrants and Black, Indigenous and people of color. With last year’s declaration of Racism as a Public Health Crisis, they share a commitment to a racially equitable COVID-19 response and to addressing root causes of racism as part of what became the Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group (PARCAG).

This is one of several blogs featuring voices from the PARCAG.

For Bereket Kiros, this past pandemic year has been exhausting, but not surprising.

In some ways, King County is no different than other parts of America. When the COVID-19 vaccines first rolled out at the start of 2021, predominantly White and wealthy places—like Vashon Island and North Seattle—had vaccination rates that exceeded the rates in racially diverse communities in South King County, despite the latter having a greater burden of COVID-19 cases.

Kiros expected these cyclical (but avoidable) racial and class inequities when COVID-19 reached King County. But he believes that as a community-at-large, we’re able to truly help our communities equitably recover.

Bereket Kiros at a meeting with the City of Seattle

Shortly after the first cases of COVID-19 started spreading here, Kiros joined King County’s Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group (PARCAG). PARCAG is a group formed by government and community-based organizations to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and racism through a government-community partnership.

At PARCAG, Kiros brought years of community building through his work as chairman/founder of the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees, and Communities of Color (CIRCC) and as chair of the COVID-19 Community Response Alliance (The Alliance)—a coalition of more than 17 multi-racial, cultural, and language organizations.

I met with Kiros to learn about how his experience as a committee member of PARCAG could help our entire community address the pandemic through an anti-racism lens.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mr. Kiros, tell us a little bit about yourself. How has your life experience led you to join PARCAG?

Bereket Kiros: I was born in Ethiopia and spent a lot of my early years traveling around Europe before moving to Milwaukee in 1985.

The racial tensions in Milwaukee were shocking. I remember one of my Catholic sponsors, an Asian American man, picked me up at the airport to take me to my assigned home which was in a Black neighborhood. When we arrived, he said “you’re not going to live here!” He was so concerned that he housed me for 6 months.

America was shaky, and I kept thinking of going back. The racial segregation was unbelievable. Instead of leaving the country, I moved to Seattle for school in 1991. That year, I dreamt of having a Tigrinya community center. So, we set one up shortly after arriving, and it became the second community center for an East African community in Seattle. We started at the micro level, providing services to the community and a space for belonging.

I was involved in a few other projects and founded the Washington African Media Association. If we don’t have a media of our own, it’s difficult to engage with our community. Eventually I worked for the City of Seattle for 12 years. It was there where I learned about the concept of “social justice.” That inspired me to go back to school to get an MBA and start using my knowledge to become a voice for my community and encourage others to become involved.

How does your personal experience affect the way you advocate for change?

My exposures living in the West and East gave me a different look at humanity. It helps me to work more in terms of engagement and try to identify commonalities to unite us. People should have their own voice and be listened to.

In the West, it feels like you need to go to war to change.

With PARCAG, King County gives us a space to help us define who we are. Most of the big organizations and corporations can define themselves. They send experts, surveys, ask you questions, and are experts on your behalf. Those are modes that haven’t helped.

PARCAG has helped me speak as a messenger from my community. It has created a two-way conversation of checkers and askers. Patty Hayes [the previous director of Public Health] would go to the meetings and share the indicators of COVID-19 and explains the challenges and situations we continue to face.

This is a good beginning because without PARCAG, it’s difficult to be heard next to such big organizations. We talk about the challenges of our community. It’s the first real step to create communications between systems and people.

What’s an example of how PARCAG has created that space to be a messenger for your community?

The way the County, City of Seattle, and University of Washington collected data around COVID-19 at the beginning was very frustrating.

I enrolled to be part of the SCAN study, for example, and I received a 17-page survey. There were no real people behind the survey, no one to walk you through the study. And at the end of the day, my results were inconclusive. As a previous grad student, I had challenges with this study. Imagine others! If you’re trying to use this study to help communities of color, make the experience simpler. Part of the problem is that most of the study’s leaders were White.

Because I was in PARCAG, I was able to challenge this approach to data collection with Dr. Jeff Duchin. And he accepted and admitted we could have done a better job. What Dr. Duchin did was recognize the issue and followed up with the University and representatives of the study to highlight the need for change. That couldn’t have happened without PARCAG.

How do you think your work through PARCAG has shifted the government’s response in addressing COVID-19?

Change is slow. We are impatient. What I observe is that change comes slowly, so be patient, and try to push more and more.

In PARCAG, we created an understanding of how to do good communication. We’re passing our communities’ messages to those who affect decisions, and this is one of the greatest things from PARCAG.

We also have to learn how to move through the layers. Budget is really important, and if you don’t incorporate change into your budget, nothing’s going to change.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I sent an email to King County asking for good data to support communities of color that included people’s country of origin (in addition to other factors). However, this needs to be done in a way that doesn’t stigmatize communities who are suffering from COVID-19. We have to be careful with how we analyze our data.

With multiple community organizations represented in PARCAG, our group can have a big impact.

Elected officials listen to us. Since our organizations joined PARCAG, we started getting more funds from the Seattle Foundation and from King County. We became a vehicle and voice for communities of color to bring funding and resources. These were funds that used to be given to big organizations, and now our communities are receiving them.

Tell us more about this disconnect between the government’s COVID-19 response and the community’s desires.

Some of us in community advocacy work tirelessly on a voluntary basis. We do this in terms of our own convictions. But the work we do is a public service, and if you want us to support the government, we should be paid.

There’s an expectation that communities of colors will do it without pay because we care a lot. But the government should create a budget for those people who are engaged. We have to support our families. There is exhaustion, believe me.

At the end, whatever you put in the community, you’re putting in the future of the country and the people you like to make a change.

What do you think will happen next after this pandemic?

For the next year, the government already knows what’s next: Community advocacy. There’s no excuse to not make a change.

I don’t believe that hundreds of years of oppression will be solved in a week or a year. But we can see progress and improved communications. And with progress, I mean metrics; something that shows accountability. We have to gauge what are the changes we made.

We talked about having communities lead the response, we talked about us needing to lead with anti-racism. How do you think we should do it?

Through a collective voice. That’s why I like to work for PARCAG.

For so many years, we’ve been divided to fight for resources. Even now, it can be a challenge to work together, and some don’t want to be as big of a collective as we are now. But there are many communities out there not being heard, so we need to work together.

What is it that you want your community to know from your experience? What is it that you want the County to understand?

This is a work in progress. Whatever we started has to be followed up. This has to continue, and it should not be a one-time advocacy. We are just starting.

For my community, I want them to know that mentoring is key. Know that you have to dismantle racism in every social institution one-by-one. It is continuous. Anything done without continuity will not work. For some of the work we do, we’ll find an answer in our lifetime, and some will be explored in the future.

About this blog:

This blog post is part of a series of stories from members of the Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group (PARCAG). The focus on PARCAG reflects its central role in defining an equitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process of making this blog, we sought to highlight equity and social justice values, anti-racism commitments and community resiliency. We also are committed to showing lessons learned and what approaches have been effective during an emergency response. To that end, Public Health has paired a communications specialist with a PARCAG member, to craft each story collaboratively. And PARCAG members receive a stipend in recognition of the time they are spending on the co-creation process. As the process of co-creation intersected with real-life difficulties from the pandemic, we recognized that being rigid about artificial timelines can itself be a reflection of white supremacy culture, and we adjusted the creation process.    

Originally published on August 20, 2021