I am a 58 year old Black man from Pittsburgh, PA, a tough, blue-collar, union town. I have worked in construction, private industry, government, and served in the military. In 2002, after being downsized out of a $80,000 a year job at a local Patent and Trademark Law firm in Washington, DC, I became a client of Bread for the City (BFC). At first I just needed help with a bag of food. As time went by (a year, then 18 months), I still could not find work. Life started throwing curve balls, upper cuts, and haymakers at me. Before I knew it my life was in a free fall, and I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth. I was barely surviving!
I was unemployed for six years. One day in early 2004, a BFC staffer asked if I would be interested in taking a college course sponsored by BFC and George Mason University, called Participatory Action Research. BFC’s management wanted to find out how they were doing their jobs by involving the clients in a survey. I felt renewed, and relevant again. Plus, I would be helping them make things better for the clients. What I did not know at the time was I truly enjoyed canvassing, asking people questions, and then turning that raw data into information that the organization could use to make clients’ experience better.
I also discovered that I had a gift for gab, especially with issues that I had experienced and been through. Now, I’m a community organizer with Bread for the City, and I have been doing this for 15 years. I enjoy teaching, and facilitating meetings and workshops. I was facilitating the Black Worker Listening Sessions held by the National Employment Law Project and ONE DC righ before I learned that we were facing the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
This pandemic has made everything (including my physical health, mental health, economic stability, and social interactions) much harder than normal. My physical health has gotten worse because being quarantined has made me less active. I have had to speak to my mental health counselors more often. I have not been able to pay my rent because I need more money for transportation because I no longer take the bus or train to buy food. I no longer have that secure feeling that comes with having a little money in my pockets.
COVID-19 pandemic has affected my employment. I was conducting advocacy training and speaking from time to time to earn money to supplement my Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). I haven’t been able to do those in-person jobs since the pandemic. I don’t qualify for unemployment insurance because I receive SSDI. I have severe osteoarthritis in my joints. I applied for SSDI in April 2008, and did not receive benefits until April 2014. Receiving this benefit sooner would have stopped my descent into poverty. I truly believe that my economic and housing instability and trauma caused stress that made the pain in my joints even worse.
If it wasn’t for mutual aid support I don’t know where I would be. If I can’t afford a ride out of the neighborhood, I have to go across the street to use the neighborhood market, and those prices are extremely high. The owner of the market doesn’t even make an attempt to have sale items on hand since the pandemic. If I leave the neighborhood I have to pay someone, or an Uber, or Lyft. I have to go out to the Giant or Safeway during their senior citizens’ hours. If I don’t there are too many people, and the lines are very long, and I cannot stand for long periods of time. So COVID-19 is not only costing me money for food and new expenses, but my time too.
I feel like the response to Black workers’ needs in Washington, DC has been one of lack of concern and care. Black and brown people make up the majority of the so-called essential workforce. They should be receiving hazard duty pay. The brothers, sisters, and siblings who stock our grocery shelves, drive the buses, and work in the pharmacies, Amazon, and Walmart are risking their lives for the rest of us but are not being compensated for their sacrifices.
I believe that after COVID-19 pandemic, Black workers will be in the same forced labor and impoverished place as we were before the pandemic, if there isn’t a major change.
Leonard Edwards,'areas of expertise include organizing, advocacy, community engagement, affordable housing.