COVID Black is using data and creating space to honor Black lives lost to virus
EXCLUSIVE: theGrio chats with founder Kim Gallon about COVID Black's mission of redefining the future of Black health by marrying ancestry with data analytics and technology.
COVID Black is a Black health data organization that uses data to tell stories about the Black lived experience to advocate for health equity. The goal of COVID Black is to honor and value each Black life that is lost to COVID-19.
COVID Black is building a digital memorial to pay respect to Black people in death that is often not given in life. The aim is to also serve as a refuge and salve to ease the pain and suffering of the families and friends who remain among the living.
theGrio chats with COVID Black founder Kim Gallon about the organization and its mission of redefining the future of Black health by marrying ancestry with data analytics and technology.
theGrio: Why did you start this project?
Kim Gallon: We started off as a project in early April 2020, right after the pandemic began and initial data about Black people was released in Chicago and Milwaukee. Not surprisingly, Black people were disproportionately affected by the virus. I was enraged by the numbers and initially did not see a lot of Black scholars talking about this data on social media.
I live in suburban Indiana, but was still concerned about the data about Blacks affected by COVID in cities across the country. I felt a strong statement needed to come from Black Studies departments. I wondered how humanists and social scientists could do something in the moment beyond just writing about it for other scholars. I put out an open call to academics to push local health departments to release data on COVID-19 statistics, especially data pertaining to Black people affected by COVID-19.
Since the Trump administration did not prioritize collecting that information, I figured Black studies departments could be directly connected to this process and use expertise as scholars to impact a lived experience in the moment. Academics aren’t first responders, but there are ways we can impact people’s lives in ways like protesting and direct action. COVID Black is another way to have direct action to enact change and data was one way to do that. Since that time, COVID Black has evolved from a Black digital humanities project that would document what is happening into a full fledged data organization that is redefining data and accountability.
Grio: By raising awareness of Blacks affected by COVID-19, what do you hope people will learn from this? Who is this project for?
KG: This project is aimed at a mixed audience. We are primarily targeting communities of color, academic institutions, and healthcare systems. Our goal is to change from data awareness to data for action. We want to highlight how data can be transformed about the Black experience to reduce health disparities.
COVIDBlack.org is a space for a virtual homegoing for Black people. Black people can also receive a free Aya pin to commemorate remembrance for their lost loved ones. For Black communities, the Aya symbol (on the pin) and the online system to memorialize Black people lost to COVID is a part of the data and healing process. For the design of the Aya pin, we worked with designer Rene Payne, founder and creative designer of Included, a company which promotes social equity, human dignity, and environmental justice projects.
Grio: Why the Aya symbol?
KG: The Aya symbol is part of the Adinkra system from Ghana. The symbols represent concepts that guide people in life. The Aya symbol is a call to Black people of African ancestry and their will to survive. The Aya symbol represents people of African descent and the ability to form communities and survive against odds. The “Fern” which is a symbol of endurance and the will to survive. The ability to survive and to be able to negotiate adversities on the other side, not necessarily unharmed but stronger having gone through this.
COVID Black is about being Black and is inclusive of all Black communities, not just descendants of formerly enslaved Black Americans. This is a diasporic effort. Black is an expansive concept and it is meant to include people who do not define themselves as descendants of slavery on U.S. soil, so the Aya symbol is meant to be inclusive of all Black people and our differing yet shared histories and backgrounds.
Ultimately, we want the Aya symbol to be in the same vein of the pink ribbon for breast cancer. We want people to see the Aya symbol and think of the ways the Black community has been affected by COVID-19. Health disparities actually kill more Black people than the police. The Aya symbol is about Black people surviving and getting through oppression. It’s about surviving racist structures we know exist in the day to day lived experience of being Black and losing our lives from a wide variety of things, COVID-19 being just one of them.
The goal in five years is to have marathons to raise awareness of how Black people dealt with and survived COVID-19. We want people wearing the Aya symbol to connect with other Black people who have survived and are moving through their survival with and without family members.
Grio: Where can people purchase this and support?
KG: Right now were giving away the Aya pin for free to family members who have lost someone to COVID-19. The website is CovidBlack.org and people can submit relevant information and receive the pin, for free. The pin is made by an independently Black-owned company called nolalapelpins.com. This project is about connecting Black people in all senses and building relationships. It’s custom designed and meant to connect Black people.
If you’d like to learn more, visit www.covidblack.org to view the memorial site and learn more about receiving an Aya pin.
Kim Gallon is an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University and the Executive Director of COVID Black.