Reflections on King County’s pandemic response: Offering hope to our communities

By Isabel Lay of Public Health – Seattle & King County with Michelle Merriweather, President and CEO, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle 

NOTE: This is one of several blogs featuring voices from King County’s Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group.

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the inequities that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face.  

Public Health—Seattle & King County 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.  

The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle (ULMS) has served on the advisory group since its inception and brings the perspective of one of the largest and longest-operating civil rights organizations in the state. ULMS is made up of 80 staff members who work within Seattle and the larger King County area to empower African Americans, as well as other diverse, underserved communities.  

  • Two staff and volunteer members with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle wearing masks are holding several red backpacks with resources to support with pandemic recovery.
  • Staff and volunteers under a tent canopy assembling black tote bags with Personal Protective Equipment and food to families during the pandemic.
  • Several volunteers and staff outside on a sunny day working behind tables to assemble black totes bags with T-shirts, Personal Protective Equipment and food supplies to community during the pandemic.

ULMS President and CEO Michelle Merriweather was part of the advisory group when it revised its focus to become the Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group (PARCAG). This reflected King County’s declaration that Racism is a Public Health Crisis, and a shared commitment to a racially equitable COVID-19 response and to addressing root causes of racism.   

Michelle Merriweather discussed her experience with PARCAG with Isabel Lay of Public Health:  

Before we talk about PARCAG, what was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic like for ULMS? 

Michelle Merriweather: When the pandemic first hit in King County, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle was able to instantly pivot our work to meet the increasing needs of our friends, constituents, and neighbors within the community. Within days we were able to launch a wide range of services, including, but not limited to: food delivery, providing laptops and WIFI to kids even before the schools were able to, launching a 24-hour shelter for young adults, and so much more. It was a devastating time to see our communities here and across the country struggle. But it was also heartwarming to see the response in King County.

It was a demonstration of what the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle stands for: We are committed to supporting our community, especially those most vulnerable and systematically oppressed. 

The way that we all came together to support the community is something I will never forget, both within the unlikely partnerships we were able to make and within the ULMS staff. I’m wildly impressed, inspired and encouraged by the ULMS team. While contracting the virus remained a constant risk, our team made every effort to respond to the growing emergent needs of those we serve, and still does to this day. Everyone wanted to be a part of the solution. Their passion for this work is what keeps me going.  

What was your experience as a member of PARCAG like?  

MM: Right after the initial wave of shutdowns, King County reached out and pitched the idea of what was then called PCAG (Pandemic Community Advisory Group) to us. It was introduced as an opportunity to not only better understand what was going on in the pandemic, but also as a way to offer our feedback on how Public Health and King County were responding, especially to marginalized groups within our community.  

The fact that they were seeking out our feedback was something that I deeply appreciated. They also created this space where a diverse group of community members were able to be together, which was a concept that we had long discussed but never executed. The commitment of the group was to gather information and learn from how we were all responding. We were able to become connected, create a blueprint for how we were handling our response, and then learn from it and continue to adapt.

This laid the foundation for how the group functions to this day and is incredibly helpful for our transforming response as we move more into recovery work.  

How has PARCAG evolved throughout the last year and a half?  

MM: After Public Health declared that Racism is a Public Health Crisis, following the global protests and reckoning after George Floyd’s murder under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, PARCAG explicitly named racism as a central part of the community work we were already doing. This was a response based on honest, genuine, community feedback.  

Since then, it’s been exciting to watch the group evolve and grow, into something that is not only responsive, but reflective of the needs of community. PARCAG became a space that was owned by community rather than by Public Health, a shift that has proven to be incredibly valuable to the work that we are now able to do.  

We’ve been able to approach this work from more of a bottom up lens, rather than top down. We’ve seen more engagement and we are able to tackle more. No one is shy about being a voice for the voiceless during these unprecedented times, and Public Health is open to listening and committed to action.  

What do you see for the future of this work?  

MM: Coronavirus related impacts continue to ripple throughout our region, creating new barriers — politically, emotionally and economically — for us to navigate on an almost daily basis. In the face of this troubling reality, we must continue to work together and be active participants in limiting the spread of the virus to keep one another safe, successfully reopen the state and resume our journey to economic recovery. 

It’s been an ever-evolving journey. The fact that PARCAG is still meeting, fact finding, listening and then repeating the cycle, speaks to the fact that we are committed to seeing this grow. When we started this group, we didn’t think we would still be here, a year and a half later, but we are devoted to serving our community and providing unwavering support throughout the next phase of the pandemic recovery.  

The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle will always remain a place to go for hope, an avenue where anyone can find the resources they need to acquire a job, pursue an education, achieve stable housing, or find someone to advocate for their needs. We are here to serve our community and offer hope, and together, we will get through this.   

Public Health is grateful to Michelle Merriweather and members of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle staff for sharing their experiences through Public Health Insider and for their ongoing work in the community, as well as their service as a part of the Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group.

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.    

About Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle: 

The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle (ULMS) has been part of the Seattle landscape since 1930, the second-oldest civil rights organization in the state of Washington. As one of the approximately 90 affiliates of the National Urban League (NUL), ULMS works primarily through five pillars of focus; housing, education, workforce development, health and policy.  

The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle has historically been one of the region’s essential economic first responders, a role that was only intensified once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As Washington state was one of the first places in the nation to experience the devastating impact of the pandemic, ULMS was at the forefront of the response. As of this summer, ULMS has been able to provide more than $52,000 to small businesses, $18,000 as direct cash relief, $10,000 in PPE equipment, $3,000 to feed local protestors, $13,900 in ride share credits, and has fed 3,100 families.

Originally published August 24, 2021