Community Commentary/Opinion: For Black people in Charlottesville, fixing broken systems is life or death

Sarad Davenport speaking

“This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’” are the words of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 song “Inner City Blues” that still echoes across the decades and once again pierces our collective consciousness.

Life for many people in America, particularly Black people, is not living at all; rather, it is survival at best in a system that is fractured and failing. Furthermore, the recent pandemic and social unrest are clear indicators that our social systems are, well, broken.

My career in the implementation of collective impact strategies has led me to a better understanding of the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH). The Centers for Disease Control identify the five SDoH as  Economic Stability; Education, Social and Community Context; Health and Health Care; and Neighborhood and Built Environment which work together to “affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes” in communities.

What has become a frustration of mine is that, for decades, resources and capacity have been poured into organizations, institutions and agencies charged with improving outcomes in educational achievement, health and economic mobility to little effect.

Unstuck: A Social Design Conversation

Economic mobility and health are intrinsically connected, but the outcomes are simply lacking. In 2017, Urban Institute published a revealing report that stated, “In 1963, the average wealth of white families was $121,000 higher than the average wealth of nonwhite families. By 2016, the average wealth of white families ($919,000) was over $700,000 higher than the average wealth of Black families ($140,000) and of Hispanic families ($192,000).” This data reveals that, in spite of the inputs and resources provided to eliminate these gaps which ultimately affect life outcomes, quality of life indicators for marginalized populations is dramatically worse.

Two years ago, Charlottesville, my hometown, helped to open up the national reckoning around racism that is still boiling hot today. This reckoning has forced us to have a larger conversation about systems and how they interact to the benefit or detriment of marginalized people. For example, instead of looking at how often we go to the doctor, people are now paying closer attention to who has insurance and the quality of the care they receive. The issue of the wealth gap and health and life outcomes are inseparable and reveal the strength and weakness of the social fabric. This ain’t livin’.

Because health and economics are intimately tied together, as are the social and educational contexts of communities, Vinegar Hill Magazine, a boutique African-American led publication I helped to start, and Charlottesville Tomorrow, a hyperlocal public service nonprofit newsroom founded by white people, have joined forces to publish a series that collectively constructs the story of how the pandemic affect many African American people in the Charlottesville area. Jordy Yager, the writer, connects the Social Determinants of Health to the struggle for life in “Determined: Stories of Resilience in a Broken Ecosystem.”

The series, with support provided by the Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant program, shares an historical story of how Black people have survived in systems that were not designed for them to thrive. Simply, the ways in which legacy media frames and misconstrues stories is often condescending and pejorative to marginalized communities and often omits their agency and the fundamental humanity of those just trying to live within a fractured ecosystem.

The reason Vinegar Hill Magazine came to be in the first place was to create a more inclusive social narrative that worked to humanize Black people in the press as opposed to demonizing them. What I understood was that traditional white-led media organizations either didn’t have the time or desire to capture the nuance of Black life and existence in Charlottesville. Quite naturally, this partnership felt as risky for us as I’m sure it did for the Charlottesville Tomorrow team. I questioned if we could preserve our editorial mission at Vinegar Hill or would it be diluted and co-opted. As a welcome surprise, this partnership is one that is already having ripple effects and setting the stage for a collective consciousness, at least locally, that will challenge us to build systems that allow people to really live.

Now I’m asking something from you, our community. Support a new model for local media. Invest in for-profit Black-owned media companies like Vinegar Hill Magazine and In My Humble Opinion Talk Radio. Support diverse newsrooms like Charlottesville Tomorrow and nonprofit news models that write with and for people of color and not about them. Hip-hop is my first language, so I understand the power of words and how they can move things. The founder of Vinegar Hill Magazine, Eddie Harris, and myself have in our own way been saying through the media as a platform that, ‘this ain’t living’ and we can do better. We are asking you to recognize the significance and historical importance of local Black-led media in creating a more inclusive social narrative. If people are serious about creating a more inclusive social narrative, then financially supporting non-profit media organizations like Charlottesville Tomorrow is imperative as is Vinegar Hill Magazine. Join us!

Sarad Davenport is a social innovator and human service professional. He serves as the Content Manager and Digital Strategist for Vinegar Hill Magazine based in his hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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