The Public Relations Society of America Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter (PRSA SE WI) is excited to share a series of blog posts from its Diversity & Inclusion Committee. This blog series features stories about how diverse communities have experienced and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the inclusive communications efforts they employed.
Something positive that has arisen out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the emergence of new, bold leaders working on the frontlines. But does bias tend to frame what traits those leaders may possess and, therefore, which leaders receive acknowledgement?
Take a moment and think of a leader, making a note of the image you form. What is that leader’s race or ethnicity? What is their gender? What language do they speak? Do they have a disability? Are they younger or more advanced in their years? Is there a particular faith they follow? Would they consider themselves a member of the LGBTQ community?
As the pandemic has drawn on in Southeastern Wisconsin, there have been many examples of diverse leadership from individuals and organizations. Let’s take a look at a few of those leaders and how they expand the idea of what “typical” leadership might be.
Diversity on the Frontlines
If you did not know Dr. Jeanette Kowalik before, you may know her now from the televised Milwaukee Health Department coronavirus briefings. The health commissioner recently spoke with Bloomberg opening up about the health disparities facing Milwaukeeans, her struggles being a Black woman in a position of power, and her own personal battle with autoimmune conditions.
Last year, Milwaukee’s health department declared racism a public health crisis. This year, the Black community has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Dr. Kowalik and her team led initiatives that produced culturally relevant messages to Black communities, and later to Latinx individuals, rather than general messaging that did not address communities’ specific needs and understandings.
The health department will soon provide free reusable masks to Milwaukeeans with multicultural phrases and designs such as “Living Your Best Life” messaging and a city logo in rainbow colors. Additionally, the Milwaukee Health Department is the community engagement partner for the You Matter campaign – a social initiative keeping people of color informed and hopeful during this pandemic.
Another face you may recognize from the health department briefings is Milwaukee Health Services (MHS) Executive Director Dr. Tito Izard. He leads MHS as a Black male doctor with locations in predominantly African-American communities. Even before COVID-19, Dr. Izard and the MHS staff were addressing the health disparities Black people face through targeted community outreach and sponsorship.
During the pandemic, MHS began offering appointment-only coronavirus testing at its facilities with no out-of-pocket expense, hosted a COVID-19 Safety Kit giveaway on Juneteenth Day, and recorded messages from popular Black actor and comedian Cedric The Entertainer talking about how to conquer the virus. MHS’s Conquering COVID-19 Collaborative even enlists the help of community contributors such as Green Bay Packers Give Back, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Milwaukee Bucks, Milwaukee Rescue Mission, and Herb Kohl Philanthropies.
African-Americans were not the only ones topping the list for coronavirus cases. The Latinx community soon surpassed all other groups to become the most affected by COVID-19. That effect took even greater hold for many when Hispanic community leader and advocate Dr. Leonardo Aponte died from coronavirus complications. Aponte was celebrating his medical practice’s 45th anniversary of bringing affordable health care to the Latinx community. According to Hispanic News Network USA, the 86-year-old served more than 225,000 patients over the years that hailed from across the globe including South America, Asia, and Europe.
His legacy lives on at his Clinica Latina on Cesar E Chavez Drive in Milwaukee’s predominantly Latinx South Side. The clinic still has testimonials on its website commending Aponte’s mission and medical care. And Clinica Latina is not alone. Local medical facilities located in Latinx communities as well as serving predominantly Latinx individuals have been on the frontlines of providing health care as well as health education, especially during this pandemic.
Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC) is one such example. Under the leadership of President and CEO Dr. Julie Schuller, SSCHC created an entire COVID-19 Community Toolkit sharing bilingual resources and data. Dr. Nicole Fortuna wrote an informative article for the SSCHC blog offering guidance on when to get tested for COVID-19. And Dr. Jorge Ramallo followed up with a SSCHC post sharing what happens after a coronavirus test. Both stories appeared in local Latinx publication El Conquistador, further spreading the word to a key audience.
Many people fight COVID-19 alongside Black and Latinx communities, and members of Milwaukee’s Muslim community recently shared their efforts in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal. Pulmonary and Critical Care Specialist Dr. Abbas Ali works at a hospital in the Sherman Park neighborhood, a predominantly African-American community hit especially hard by the virus early on. Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine Physician Dr. Dima Adl also works on the frontlines of health care during the pandemic, which has been difficult for this mother working night shifts while her family worries about her. Pulmonologist and ICU Director Dr. Raed Hamed works at a hospital in Milwaukee’s downtown area, another part of the city that saw a high number of cases.
Takeaways for Communicators
Representation matters. Communicators have the opportunity to ensure diverse representation in its company’s words and images as well as in the individuals, groups, and community organizations they choose to spotlight. And by no means does this article fully cover the many diverse communities and individuals battling the pandemic.
When telling your company’s stories, determine if there are diverse voices who can speak on your behalf and speak to a group that may have been underrepresented in the past. As you plan your communications, ask yourself whether what you have written or spoken provides a true example of the communities you currently serve or are seeking to serve. And recognize that different audiences have different experiences, wants, and needs that require your special consideration.
This article concludes our Diversity and Inclusion in a Pandemic series. We hope that you have learned something new about the many people, companies, and communities doing their part to make a difference even in the most challenging of times. And we hope that you will have a new perspective when planning your communications as well as determining where and how to provide your support.
Founder & Principal
Interim Executive Director
Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee
Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition