As a superintendent of a school district in which more than four-fifths of its students are Black, COVID-19 has been nothing but a scourge to our community and the work we’ve done to lift and empower our students.
This virus has been particularly cruel to the Black community. It has cut off many of our students from the refuge of school buildings where they not only learn best, but where we hope they have powerful relationships with their teachers, coaches and staff and critical wellness resources that they may not have at home.
This virus has also unfairly separated our fine and loving Black culture of extended family members. Our divine bloodlines and our blessed cultural web of aunties and uncles and cousins and grandchildren who support one another currently cannot give rides to one another, share meals or gather on Sundays. They cannot celebrate milestones like births and birthdays, graduations or even a great report card - all the things that fly in the face of poverty and systemic exclusion. Right now, they cannot hug.
For some struggling to survive, their safety bubble is impossible to keep. Their need for extended family support may open a doorway to this awful disease. When will it stop?
Right now we have a complex and emotional choice to make. Do we take the vaccine or not? Do we trust a medical profession that treated our ancestors like guinea pigs, cruelly oblivious to their pain? Do we trust an institution that to this day treats Black men and women different in ERs, ambulances, exam rooms and labor and delivery wards?
I can’t make this critical medical decision for you. Like all of this, it’s incredibly personal and part of the pain, resilience and courageous beauty of the Black experience.
However, I’ve been asked quite a bit about what to do in my role as a school superintendent where most white parents and grandparents will without hesitation get the vaccine, and many of our black families may not.
My advice is this: Look to our youth. Look to the vision and innovation of your children and grandchildren and great children.
One of them, at the sweet age of 24 in full bloom like a spring daffodil, had the courage to stand on a podium as a young Black woman at one of the tensest presidential inaugurations ever and joyfully tell all Americans, it's the past we step into and how we repair it. Let’s also look to Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, an African American researcher who led the charge to develop the first COVID-19 vaccine at Pfizer. This is a woman who embraced intellect and science amid cruel political pressure to disbelieve everything she stood for.
Let’s look closer to home to Brittany Packnett and the young voices of Ferguson. Remember African Americans like Bethany Johnson-Javois, who put health equity on the table, and Jason Purnell who framed the issue with powerful research and action among the white power structures in this city. Let’s follow the wisdom of Serena Muhammad who took the reins of the COVID-19 Regional Task Force in August and hasn’t looked back. Think of the maternal health torchbearers like Brittany “Tru” Kellman who literally built a village of joy and health for expectant Black mothers right in the center of Ferguson. Or the homegrown Rev. Starsky Wilson, who is now the leader of one of the most powerful children’s organizations in America. I know I’ve missed so many many others who deserve applause, as well as those in the generations behind them. And I apologize for that.
But my point is, change in medicine has sprung from the power, vision and integrity of our Black offspring. It is this youthful hope and transformative change they are building together that still gives me hope for our students currently fighting to be educated and healthy in a global pandemic.
It is in honor of all of our youth - the young innovators and the children - that I will let go of my fear. I will step into the past to repair my trust in medicine lost in our African American experience. I will be getting the vaccine.
Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley is the superintendent of the School District of University City.