Communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19

Mikaela sitting on curb
Mikaela (Photo by @zwalshphotography)

Voices in solidarity

Part two of a series: Activists Mikaela Jamille Berry and Tracy Rogers

Many communities are in the eye of the government an outlier to American success. In this article we will meet two activists persevering justice, awareness, and community for people of color, the working class, those incarcerated, LGBTQ, and all the intersections of identity between us.

Mikaela Jamille Berry, is a theater teacher, event planner, and writer. Berry is deeply passionate about community, transformative justice, and collective healing through compassion, and understanding. She works with the Police Reform Organizing Project as their Social Media Manager and Gender Justice Research Coordinator, Soul Sisters Leadership Collective as a teaching artist for young women in various forms of incarceration, viBe Theater Company as the Program Director for a course on LGBTQ expression, and the HER Social App as their New York City Events Manager.

How have you been personally, Mikaela? Are you and your loved ones holding up okay?

Mikaela Jamille Berry: Personally, I am okay! I am celebrating a grad school acceptance in my self-isolation, and have been in constant communication with my family. I am fortunate and so grateful for my health, and my ability to shelter in place as I know many, primarily poor/working-class black and brown, individuals do not. I am trying my hardest to be an advocate in the safest way I know-how.

Lip Sync Battle
Poster by @hersocialapp

What are you seeing out in the world now, outside your work (HER App) that is concerning you?

MJB: When I’m not working at HER, I work in police reform, and something I have been keeping track of is the way in which coronavirus is spreading in prisons and jails in New York—an exponentially higher rate than the way it is spreading in New York in general. You can’t practice social distancing in jail, and many people in Rikers Island Correctional facility are being held there for technical parole violations, or have yet to receive sentencing.

Now the entire prison population (no matter what may have gotten them to Rikers in the first place) is being sentenced to death by a viral disease. It is incredibly unjust and horrifying to me, and there are not enough moves being made to remedy this; if there are not swift releases of immune-compromised, elderly detainees and those on the island for technical parole, then we will have an incredibly gruesome humanitarian crisis on our hands. The existence of Rikers itself is a humanitarian crisis, only this is not deemed important enough by the vast majority because of incarceration status. This is something that is factually and historically rooted in the intersections of racism and classism. It’s hard to watch because it is so clear how little value most people place on this population that is overwhelmingly black and brown and poor.

When did you realize the importance and need to create a community for the queer community in isolation from the pandemic with your work?

MJB: Okay, so as soon as bars began to close and big events started to get canceled, I knew that there would be an immediate need for connection in a time of isolation. As a queer woman and a party planner, I know how important it is to have spaces in which our identities are honored and protected. So, I immediately talked to the HER team, and within a few days, we had virtual events planned all over the world.

My personal project is a virtual open mic, where artists who are stuck inside have an outlet and audience to perform to. We had our first one March 20 with five performances, and it was such an affirming and positive space. Everyone was so kind, and we had over 50 participants. We’re going to do it every Friday to keep people together and encourage artists to keep creating. It has been really fun so far!

Now, we’re working on a live virtual dating show that I will be hosting—think virtual gay bachelor meets flavor of love. We already have many people interested in competing.

How has everything been? What are the updates with HER app community building?

MJB: Everything has been well! HER has started to do events specific to individual cities (cocktail making classes, DJ sets, speed dating) and expanding the types of events we offer, and it’s been going really well. We are still working out some kinks, but are finding a lot of success in all of the things we have tried so far.

NYC Virtual Speed Dating
Poster by @hersocialapp

What have you been finding from the people who are partaking in these efforts to connect and build community? Do you find it successful?

MJB: I think it’s been super successful! In the open mic I host, there is nothing but love and positivity in the comments as people perform. We have created spaces where people can express themselves freely, and in the comfort of their own homes, and others can encourage them and appreciate the art they make. We’ve started to see people come back as we continue to host the event, so I’m starting to see familiar faces! It brings me so much joy to see that there is still community and love between artists in time so disconcerting.

Tracy Rogers talks about hope and ensuring the safety of communities left to their own devices. The Asbury Park Affordable Housing Coalition dedicates their focus on the way local governments and developers value their residents. This means paying attention to the working class, and those with low incomes (50 percent or less than the median) and moderate incomes (80 percent or less than the median).

First, Tracy, how are you? Are you well and healthy at this time?

Tracy Rogers: Yes, everyone is well and safe. Hope you and your family are well also.

How do we use this time to build solidarity and equality in a time of fear? Can we ensure the federal and local governments will do what is expected of them to do for those communities in need of help?

TR: We can never expect government to do what’s right, they are human and each with their own value system. If you expect government to do what’s right you need to let your voice be heard.

What are you currently experiencing in affordable housing in Asbury Park? What are you noticing the most in your community and city right now?

Group of five people from the affordable housing coalition
Tracy Rogers, Felicia Simmons, Derek Minno-Bloom, Randi and Kevin Walsh from Fair Share Housing.

TR: The Coalition’s proposed ordinance to the city of Asbury Park, if passed, would require 60 percent of all new buildings with over 5 residential units to include 20 percent affordable housing for moderate and low-income people. The public hearing for this ordinance is August 21, 2020.

Do you have access to the things you need; do people of Asbury have access to the things they need?

TR: We cannot be totally sure if people are getting everything they need, but I am working with state Advocates who are pushing Governor Phil Murphy to make sure (after this pandemic) people are not pushed out of their housing after this is over. For now, because of an executive order, no one can be pushed out as long as this order is in place.

Do you have fears of Asbury’s Black/ LGBTQ/ Latino/ Hispanic Communities suffering from the outcomes and decisions made for relief as it applies to COVID19?

TR: All are suffering, not only for the fear of this virus but what will happen after it’s over with an economic recession. I hope that those who are most in need are a priority in these stimulus packages.