by Sophia Chupein, SF Bay View
Last month, Bay View community members gathered at the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center to honor those who helped our community through the trenches of the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 17, the senior center held an event to celebrate the healthcare workers and organizers who fought to provide wellness services, information, resources and vaccines to isolated seniors throughout San Francisco.
The event clearly underscored the importance of collaboration and unity during a time of profound uncertainty for the Black elderly community, and we are so grateful to have such a strong team of people fighting to provide equitable healthcare.
Michael Bennett, director of health and wellness for the center, started the event by acknowledging the researchers and healthcare workers who were instrumental in facilitating outreach, both with seniors and others. One person who Bennett thanked was Dr. Vincent Fuqua from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, who has been on the frontline of Black health disparities for decades.
In a speech, Bennett stated: “The reason why we want to acknowledge and honor Dr. Vincent as an African American … you didn’t see a lot of African American doctors out on the front lines.”
In response, Dr Fuqua said he “just wanted to give my appreciation to everything you do … it’s all about doing work for the community because being behind your desk doesn’t get it done. It is about all of us coming together and doing this as one.”
Michael Bennett began his work in uplifting marginalized San Franciscans while he was homeless, advocating for homeless people and working in prenatal care. After that, he worked with AmeriCorps, who granted him an educational stipend to get an education and better prepare himself for the work he wanted to accomplish.
SF Bay View board chair and filmmaker Kevin Epps was among the first people Bennett reached out to for connections, since Bennett understood that, when “giving shots to African Americans, it’s always good to have somebody who looks like us to go in there and provide that service.” From then on, Bennett found more and more healthcare workers and educators from across San Francisco to collaborate with.
When COVID-19 hit San Francisco, Bennett and the George W. Davis Senior Center initiated informational workshops in collaboration with Black healthcare workers. One of these workers was Mrs. Wolard.
Now 102 years old, Mrs. Wolard was one of the original Black nurses who worked with Michael years ago. She talked about her deep understanding that it wasn’t just about being COVID-ready, and that factors like brain health, Alzheimer’s, mental health and exercise all play critical roles in health during a pandemic.
“Each community has their own approach and our assumption is that they are the experts in their own community.”
When Bennett asked Ms. Wolard to share a few words, she asked the crowd: “How many of you in here today have had a good belly laugh? I believe that laughter can do so much for the brain. Laughter can relieve stress, laughter can relieve pain, laughter is good for your mental health. So I am encouraging all of you to have a good laugh daily.” She then proceeded to tell a joke that made the entire audience erupt into laughter.
Representatives from Metta Fund, a funder that has been a longtime partner of the senior center and Michael Bennett, attended the event as well. The organization has been focused on the physical and mental health of aging and older adult communities in San Francisco for years. When the pandemic hit, Metta Fund knew that reaching out to organizers like Michael, people who really knew the community personally, was the ticket to providing the equitable resources that Black older adults and seniors needed.
Catherine Collen, Metta Fund senior program and grants officer, spoke up: “When the pandemic happened, we were always reaching out to our partners and saying, ‘Can you tell us what you’re thinking about? How can we help?’ Each community has their own approach. Whatever their approach is, our assumption is that they are the experts in their own community.”
While the event was wrapping up, I finally got to speak with Kevin Epps, who discussed the importance of real community collective action.
Epps: “Michael observed the work we were doing was different from other organizations because for one: It’s folks that look like us. And we were on the ground, boots on the ground. It wasn’t abstract.
“We collectively used our efforts and resources to really serve the elderly community. We did a number of pop-ups here, educational and informational conversations, and showed up more than once. Having these Black doctors and persistence helped build that sense of trust.”
Epps then highlighted what he feels is the current task at hand: “How do we use these teachable moments to continue to use that blueprint to impact other issues in the Black community?”
Sophia Chupein is the Social Media Manager and a community journalist for the SF Bay View. She holds a BA in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara. Sophia can be reached by email at email@example.com.