The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team connected with Cheryl Grills, Ph.D., President’s Professor in LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, professor of Psychology, and director of the Psychology Applied Research Center, about a project she recently undertook with colleagues from the Alliance of National Psychological Associations for Racial and Ethnic Equity to investigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color. Below is the conversation we had with Professor Grills about this work. Professor Grills and colleagues from alliance organizations will share about their findings in greater depth during a panel discussion as part of the CSJ Symposium on Feb. 3.
Question: What were some of the early indications that COVID-19 was having a disproportionate impact on communities of color? What were your initial reactions to that information?
Cheryl Grills: In March 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared that there was a COVID‐19 pandemic in the nation. It became apparent that COVID‐19 was and would continue to have a disproportionately adverse impact on tribally, racially, and ethnically diverse communities [hereafter referred to as communities of color]. CoC refers to African American/Black/Africana; Latinx/Afro‐Latinx; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander American; and American Indian and Alaska Native people. One very disappointing reality emerged which signaled the need for our study: A deluge of COVID‐19‐related research emerged at a national and global level — but they did not adequately reflect COVID-19 social science research by, from, about or for communities of color with careful attention to culture and context. So, in fact it was the glaring absence of information specific to COVID’s differential impact on CoCs and sub‐groups that signaled the need. This was coupled with what we were all seeing in our communities – heightened negative repercussions from COVID-19 in just about every aspect of life, health, mental health, employment, housing, etc..
My initial reaction — to spring into action to fill the gap — was further inspired by our congressional legislators of color. Recognizing the dearth of valid, reliable, and nuanced data from which to draft legislation and public policy, the Congressional Tri‐Caucus (initiated by the Congressional Black Caucus) expressed an urgent need for credible data about COVID‐19’s impact on five priority populations in the United States: (1) Black (including African American, Caribbean American, Afro‐Latinx, and African immigrant); (2) Latinx, including those who are undocumented; (3) Asian American; (4) Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander American; and (5) American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN). In response to this urgent need I brought together researchers of color, national civil rights organizations, community‐based organizations, and subject matter experts in a variety of fields of expertise to fill the data gap. We addressed the data need through a culturalist methodological approach in the design and implementation of a multi‐ethnic, interdisciplinary national needs assessment of the impact of COVID‐19 on CoCs.
Q: What does it mean that the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color is more of a “syndemic” than a pandemic?
Grills: CoC have borne a disproportionate burden of the COVID‐19 pandemic that required a more robust way of characterizing it — that is, a syndemic. A syndemic involves the synergy of co‐occurring epidemics. Multiple interconnected systems can contribute to the worsening of underlying health conditions, socioeconomic disparities, and heightened disease among communities of color. For example, communities of color have not recovered from the 2008 recession. Add to this the well documented reality that the social determinants of health – conditions, shaped by structural racism, in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes – were well entrenched prior to COVID-19.
Essentially, COVID-19 introduced the final ingredient of a recipe for disaster. The confluence of environmental and socioeconomic inequities and pre‐existing chronic disease conditions created a synergistic effect — known as a syndemic — accelerating the hazardous impact of COVID‐19 on CoC.
Q: How have Black communities, specifically, been impacted? How has the experience in Black communities been similar or different to other communities of color? To white communities?
Grills: The Black community was and continues to be hit hard by COVID-19 including in the form of food insecurity, financial hardship, gender differences in unpaid work, stress – including stress associated with worry about mental health, health and health services access challenges, rate of positive cases and deaths, limited Wi-Fi and technology access, exacerbated education disparities, and more. But these very same concerns were identified to varying degrees by the other racial/ethnic groups. It is important to note that we also identified culturally specific protective factors (e.g., cultural tools and practices, spirituality, music, maintaining connection to others etc.) used by all of the CoC to mitigate COVID‐19’s risks and adverse effects.
Members of the Black community shared how social determinants of health may have impacted their mental health and physical health. For example, they reported that environmental inequities (policies that permit the disproportionate location of factories and chemical plants in or close by Black communities) created toxic environmental conditions that exacerbated pre‐existing health conditions (asthma and heart disease), which in turn increased fears about their risks for severe COVID‐19 outcomes. Other issues emerged such as stigma associated with standing in food lines for some Black respondents and the challenge presented by COVID‐19 restrictions to traditional cultural principles such as communalism (i.e., reliance on community supports such as the Black church).
Q: What can you share about the origins and areas of focus of the Alliance of National Psychological Associations for Racial and Ethnic Equity?
Grills: The Alliance is a collaborative body of national psychological associations and a research center. They include the Asian American Psychological Association, the Association of Black Psychologists, the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, the National Latinx Psychological Association, and the American Psychological Association. To ensure an inclusive process, each alliance group partnered with several community‐based (e.g., the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition) and university‐based partners (e.g., Research for Indigenous Social Action and Equity (RISE) Center). We collectively connected with over 80 trusted community‐based organizations across the country. The primary goal was to gather data to support evidence‐based public policy, civil rights advocacy, and local community‐led social justice campaigns.
Q: What else haven’t we asked about that you would like to share?
Grills: An important feature of this study is its cultural integrity and culturalist methodology. The Alliance agreed that established constructs, measurements, and procedures that serve mainstream U. S. health and mental health assessments do not have equal applicability for diverse tribal/racial/ethnic communities because they usually undermine the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices of these populations. We were committed to [re]culturating the research process by incorporating culturally centered methodologies that reflect ancestral wisdom and community‐based knowledge and the worldview by which these communities live.
Q: Why is it important that LMU community members attend the panel discussion you will be participating in on this topic on Feb. 3 as part of the CSJ Symposium?
Grills: To the extent we [at LMU] are committed to the idea that we are men and women for others, this discussion is a call to learn about COVID-19’s impact on historically oppressed communities of color who continue to bear the weight of structural racism. For those interested in research it is an opportunity to learn about research from the perspective of those most impacted by a social process/dynamic/issue. This is an opportunity to learn, challenge assumptions, and become inspired to help get grounded in information that reflects the lived experience of communities we tend to know only through stereotypes and misinformation. Ultimately, this is an opportunity to deepen empathy and compassion.
Please register here to join the conversation with Professor Grills and her colleagues from the Alliance of National Psychological Associations for Racial and Ethnic Equity about this work on Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. PST.
- LMU Anti-Racism Workshop Series: The first workshop of the series is on Feb. 2, 3-5 p.m. PST on Zoom. For more information, contact Dr. Joe Bernardo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- SYSTEMIC ANALYSIS: Join us for a report out session in February and March:
- In the bi-weekly Systemic Analysis Report Out sessions, two units present on their progress toward strengthening DEI practices and establishing anti-racist systems within their sectors. These sessions have been beneficial to faculty and staff who are looking to begin their systemic analysis process or continue in their own equity-minded work to get ideas and learn from other areas. Students are also welcomed to join these sessions and participate in the Q&A. Previous sessions are available to view on our Systemic Analysis page, which also includes a copy of each unit’s presentation slides.