Peggy Cain and Melanie Agnew: Pandemic gives opportunity to address inequities

In this April 8, 2020, photo, small businesses are shuttered closed during the coronavirus epidemic in the Crown Heights neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough in New York. For years, financial inequality has widened in the United States and elsewhere as wealth and income have become increasingly concentrated among the most affluent while millions struggle to get by. Now, the coronavirus outbreak has laid bare the human cost of that inequality, making it more visible and potentially worse. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing into sharp relief underlying inequities in society. COVID-19 provides the opportunity to address the inequities as we rebuild with new systems. To do this, we need leaders who understand the compounding, intersecting factors that create long standing inequities.

The coronavirus is impacting people of color hardest due to multiple factors (“Utahns of color are hit harder by virus,” Tribune, April 15). People of color tend to work in essential services that require continued social interaction or in hospitality and related sectors that have laid off many workers. These workers tend to have lower wages and sometimes work without adequate protective gear.

Wages for working people have not kept up with inflation and even families with multiple wage earners cannot make ends meet. Wage patterns reflect inequities that intersect with legacies of racism to constrain access by people of color to high-paying jobs.

Economic differences also intersect with limited access to health care. Utah delayed expanding Medicaid until recently, many workers are not covered by employer-sponsored plans and, when they are, this coverage ends when an employee is laid off.

Further, underlying health conditions are connected to the quality and abundance of food people can access and afford to consume. Therefore, those with lower wages tend to have higher rates of chronic illnesses and are more likely to suffer more or die from a virus like COVID-19.

Compounding the problem, West Side communities live with more air pollution from highways, refineries and mines. Airborne pollution weakens lungs, rendering individuals more likely to suffer from lung damage.

The shift to online schooling adds another dimension to the inequities, highlighting the digital divide between those who have easy access to computers, internet and space to do homework versus those who do not. Our West Side teachers report more difficulty connecting with their students and less parental support because many parents are still working outside the home in essential roles.

The interplay of poor access to good education, health care and housing compounds the problem and sets students back even further in comparison to their wealthier peers.

What do these complex challenges mean for leaders who begin to see more clearly the inequities in our society? Leaders need new understandings of the roots of the inequities, plus leadership and change strategies and the skills to manage a crisis.

Those leaders are out there, at all levels of community change. We’ve met them and mentored them in our roles in Westminster College’s graduate programs. We need more like them – leaders equipped with an understanding of complex systems, historical inequities, change, leadership and vision. To address systemic inequities, leaders need:

  • Systems thinking: skills to learn how economic, political, physical and social dynamics interplay to increase inequities and the need to address issues systemically.

  • Root causes: understanding the historical legacies and continuing impacts of exclusion and discrimination, in individual relationships and societal institutions, and how those continue to shape inequities today.

  • Change strategies: understanding change as a dynamic process integrating bodies, beliefs, and interactions in local and global systems, including change management as a creative process that adapts to opportunities and challenges.

  • Collaboration: skills for working with communities and organizations in ways that involve those most affected by issues and those with scientific expertise.

  • Vision: articulation of values that guide us as leaders and a vision for greater equity and inclusion in our organizations and society as a whole.

Leaders today face unprecedented challenges. The pandemic provides the opportunity to unveil longstanding inequities and develop new ways to build fair and just societies.

Peggy Cain, Ph.D., teaches classes in leadership, equity and inclusion and directs the Master of Arts in Community Leadership Program at Westminster College.

Melanie Agnew, Ed.D., is dean for the School of Education at Westminster College. Her scholarship focuses on higher education leadership, organizational change and equity, access and inclusion in education.