The women of the International Black Women’s Public Policy Institute (IBWPPI) were preparing for another busy year of fundraising and attracting new members to spread their reach when the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything. They had just moved into a new office and were setting up workspaces for the three new researchers and interns they had just hired from the local university when stay-at-home orders hit.
“I mean, they had been in the office two weeks, and then this happened,” laughs Barbara Perkins, president and founder of IBWPPI.
It was a double whammy because IBWPPI usually does a big membership drive in February and March, shares Perkins. For an organization that relies on membership dues and support, bringing in new people was an important facet of getting their work done. But since large public gatherings were no longer allowed and they had to switch to remote work, suddenly their main method of driving engagement was no longer feasible.
Like many other organizations and businesses, Perkins says they hadn’t planned on being out of the office, and especially not for as long as they had. But just because they couldn’t do what they normally would, didn’t mean IBWPPI couldn’t still help those in need.
Founded in 2009 and headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, IBWPPI, an East West Bank community partner and client, is focused on four principle ideas, which they call their Four Pillars: human trafficking, health and wellness, economic security and education. The women of IBWPPI do research and work with legislators to draft and implement policies that would benefit women socially and economically across the world. Through their Young Ambassadors program, more senior members mentor younger ones in not only business, but how they can use their influence to help women.
“When I saw what they were doing, I immediately joined on a personal level as a member to support them annually, and with that membership I began to attend some of their sessions, followed them on the web, and saw all of the good that they were doing,” says Regina Murray, East West Bank relationship manager.
But another integral part of IBWPPI’s work is their “acts of kindness.” Along with providing resources and up-to-date news on the COVID-19 pandemic in their newsletters, IBWPPI also initiated a new program to help people impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Care Package Project started when they caught wind of the struggles of a couple of university students. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, colleges and universities across the country had to close their campuses and send students home, but the suddenness of the announcement left many students with limited options.
“The feedback from some was, how am I going to get home? How long are we going for?” shares Perkins. “And then part of that stuff was, what if I don’t have a home to go to? Everyone doesn't have that kind of return back to my two-parent household.”
Perkins noted that two students, in particular, needed help. One college student received special permission to remain on campus because his home situation wasn’t ideal. However, his school had shut down all regular student services, including cafeteria access, which left him in a lurch. Another PhD student had been renting a car from Uber and driving for them, but as things shut down, her number of rides declined. She had to return the car because she could no longer make the monthly payments, but that left her without any transportation.
"…Our policy work has to be intergenerational. Our movement forward has to be intergenerational."
Then came the idea of the Care Package Project. They repurposed some of the funds that had been earmarked for IBWPPI’s Boots on the Ground initiative, which had started in 2019 to support families that had been negatively impacted by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, and used that to send $100 Amazon gift cards once a week to someone in need. The program started with the two university students, but has since evolved. Now, anyone can nominate a woman in need to receive one of the gift cards, simply by filling out an online form on IBWPPI’s website.
“We figured that way they can buy food, use it for whatever you need, have it sent right to you rather than us trying to manage how to get supplies to you,” explains Perkins. “That seems to be working out really well.”
Murray adds that the organization has also begun collecting resources to help women in the Atlanta metropolitan area and sharing them with their members in their newsletter. “They’re constantly looking for a way to make a difference,” Murray says. “To say, we can’t save the world, but we can save this little block here—they’re looking for opportunities to make a difference, which I can appreciate.”
One of the biggest changes to come out of the COVID pandemic is the way IBWPPI tackles health care policy. Health and wellness have always been a part of IBWPPI’s mission, but the pandemic has brought to the forefront the disparities in health care access, particularly along racial lines.
Although these disparities have long existed, the pandemic has emphasized just how large that gap is. In Georgia, 83 percent of patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus in March were black, despite black people accounting for only 32 percent of the overall state population. To address this issue, IBWPPI is working on a preliminary policy paper that takes a deep dive into the underlying causes.
Black women are particularly at risk, shares Stacie Fujii, senior policy advisor for IBWPPI. “Black women are usually at the bottom of the list for early detection, and at the top of the list for the worst services, or for services at all,” says Fujii. “What you learn is that when you already have a preexisting condition, you are more likely to catch COVID. So the African American community, specifically African American women, are at a disadvantage when the pandemic hits because you’re already looking at preexisting conditions.”
“They’re constantly looking for a way to make a difference. To say, we can’t save the world, but we can save this little block here—they’re looking for opportunities to make a difference, which I can appreciate."
That then begs the question: Why do those preexisting conditions exist? Not only do black Americans lack access to affordable health care, even when they receive health care, the quality is considerably lower when compared to their white counterparts. According to a 2005 report by the National Academy of Medicine, minorities are less likely to receive “appropriate cardiac care, to receive kidney dialysis or transplants, and to receive the best treatments for stroke, cancer, or AIDS.”
The pandemic is bringing to light the many inequities in health care for black Americans, from poor health care quality, to systemic racism and implicit bias among health care professionals, to the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“When you start to look at it, you see how everything’s connected, so that when we get to the space of a pandemic hitting the United States, the people who are losing the battle the quickest look like black women,” states Fujii. “So, that’s currently the policy paper that we’re talking about—laying the landscape for the situation and then offering up policy solutions to a lot of these issues.”
Since they weren’t able to recruit new members this year, Perkins knew they had to get creative and come up with alternative methods of maintaining interest.
“We just opened up our membership,” Perkins shares. “Our membership is usually $100 for the year, $25 for students. We just opened the membership, made it free for a few months.” While Perkins doesn’t know exactly how long they plan on waiving membership fees, she does believe that it’s critical to IBWPPI’s future success to maintain membership momentum.
“Our thinking is that others will see our acts of kindness, be interested in our work based on that, and then take a deeper dive into what it is we do and want to become a member,” she explains. “But this is not a good time to ask you to pay $100 for the membership, so we said, let’s give the membership away and keep the new interests engaged with us. And then by next year, hopefully, they’ll stay on board as a member and that new membership revenue will come in.”
Part of that means making sure there’s understanding between the younger and older generations. Perkins shares that one woman from the Young Ambassadors program, Maleena Lawrence, is interviewing and collecting the stories of young people going through COVID-19 for a project.
“This thing has touched everybody, and I think every voice can add some meaning to it when we’re able to look back,” believes Perkins. “Right now, we can’t look back, but when we’re able to look back, I think it’s going to be important to hear—what did the children think? The young people? The college students who are home?”
Although Perkins doesn’t yet know the direction or form the project will take, she’s hopeful that this collection of voices and stories will connect the older and younger generations. “I certainly would love to hear and see how useful they can be in terms of connecting the generations, because our policy work has to be intergenerational,” she emphasizes. “Our movement forward has to be intergenerational.”
As their name would suggest, IBWPPI helps women around the world, with members representing Ghana, Haiti, the Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda and Cuba, as well as the U.S.
"When you start to look at it, you see how everything’s connected, so that when we get to the space of a pandemic hitting the United States, the people who are losing the battle the quickest look like black women."
Board member Dawn Sutherland, who is based in Ghana and founder of the nonprofit, Bridge-to-Africa Connection, first started helping out local villagers and children on her own, helping to cover school fees and giving them food. However, she soon realized that IBWPPI could also help.
The partnership first started with Perkins shipping excess boots from their Boots on the Ground initiative to Sutherland, who then distributed those boots to children, many of whom didn’t have shoes and frequently suffered from snake and insect bites because of it. Perkins even came to visit and help distribute the boots in the village.
Sutherland told her that the village had no toilets or running water, and right then they decided to sponsor and renovate a toilet facility for the local school, which was completed in March.
“We also started a women’s empowerment group because a lot of the women who didn’t farm were doing a little petty trading, but not full-fledge,” Sutherland shares. “We gave them a nice talk, with Barbara as the lead, and helped them to start the group.”
Sutherland and IBWPPI also do a lot of work with local schools, sometimes covering the school fees of girls, but also building a library for one and donating computers to teachers at another.
Ghana recently came out of a full lockdown from the pandemic, but even during that, Sutherland looked for ways they could support the local people. Sutherland explains that many of the people living in the village are petty traders who need to sell daily in order to make a living and support their families. “In this pandemic, when they are not able to sell, we delivered food items to them,” she shares. “In March, we gave each family rice, cooking oil, sardines, some masks, bread, just so they could help to feed their families.”
Likewise, children were no longer able to go to school and didn’t have access to online classes due to the lack of computers. “We gave them pencils, pens, and helped them with a schedule, like this is what you should do at 9, 10, because otherwise they don’t have that,” Sutherland adds. “And of course, the teachers and the government school don’t have the computers to communicate, so we’ve been helping them with that.”
“The pandemic has done nothing except focus and heighten awareness that the people, especially the children, need to wash their hands and focus more on what they’re doing to their health.”
Although Ghana hasn’t been as impacted by COVID-19, the pandemic has highlighted the sanitation and health care infrastructure problems in the country. “We have major issues from a business standpoint, because we don’t have public toilets. We don’t have toilets in every home; we don’t have running water,” says Sutherland. “So, if you wanted to shut down, you can’t. People have to go out to go to the toilet.”
To combat that, Sutherland is focusing on teaching the children preventative techniques, such as proper hand washing and hygiene practices. But even that has only highlighted the lack of access to even basic necessities like soap and water.
“For internationally, we have to focus on just the basics and health care prevention. How do you take care of your personal hygiene? And the pandemic has done nothing except focus and heighten awareness that the people, especially the children, need to wash their hands and focus more on what they’re doing to their health,” states Sutherland. “Prevention is a must, given the fact that we don’t have the hospitals to care for them.”
Even though there is still a lot of work to be done, Sutherland emphasizes that she and IBWPPI are there to help: “During a crisis, you do what you need to do to help, and that’s what we’ve done.”