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COVID Response: PolicyLink advances racial equity with a ‘people’s agenda for recovery’

COVID-19, Environment

By Jim McFarlin

Editor’s note: Since March, Kresge partners have responded to COVID in inspiring ways. Over the next few weeks, we are profiling eight such partners, who are also featured in our upcoming annual report on racial equity, Inside Out & Outside In. 

When COVID-19 hit the nation, PolicyLink quickly joined local, state and federal leaders in rallying to provide support. While most of the state and federal government’s attention has been centered on businesses, PolicyLink was mindful to put people first.


That was born of lessons learned from earlier crises — Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the economic collapse of 2008 and many others. It’s an approach that became even more relevant as COVID-19 disproportionately affected communities of color. Wanting to ensure relief got to the people and places in greatest need, PolicyLink put its Principles for a Common-Sense, Street-Smart Recovery into action.

One early example took place in Los Angeles. When California Gov. Gavin Newsom created a COVID-19 task force, many PolicyLink leaders were involved, says Chief Operating Officer Josh Kirschenbaum.

“While the state figured out shelter-in-place protocols, we were able to use tools we already had created – Common-Sense, Street-Smart Recovery – to begin to build the case that it is not just about businesses reopening, but also policy for essential workers,” Kirschenbaum says. “It was a people’s agenda for recovery, a concrete example of moving policy ahead while putting people first.”

Through a partnership with The Kresge Foundation’s Environment Program and the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, PolicyLink launched the national Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus in 2018 with a similar common-sense approach of putting people first. To develop solutions to water challenges across the country, caucus members share information with one another, lend their professional expertise, and build solidarity with local residents and policymakers who are on the front lines fighting climate change.

Just as the climate crisis hits low-income communities and people of color first and worst, so has the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet when faced with any crisis, PolicyLink’s agenda remains the same: prioritizing humans over corporations, protecting people from losses, and advancing racial equity.

In addition to putting people first, principles for recovery include strategies and actions in the areas of community infrastructure investment, building an equitable economy and protecting community voices in policymaking and spending. According to Chief Impact Officer Amanda Navarro, while the focus of the California task force has been on immediate recovery, PolicyLink and many of its partners also had an unanticipated opportunity to propel policy issues forward.

“Many things that we didn’t expect to move forward for three to five years, we are finding the opportunity is presenting itself now,” Navarro says. “And while our priorities have not changed, we are a little more intentional and have to connect the dots for our audiences.”

Those “dots” can be found on the COVID-19 & Race section of the PolicyLink website. The comprehensive site outlines not only principles for recovery, but also featured commentaries, media analyses and original research.

One recent report explores the impact of the pandemic on the labor market. A joint effort of PolicyLink’s National Equity Atlas, Burning Glass Technologies and JPMorgan Chase, the study found that people of color and immigrants are bearing the brunt of job losses.

In a statement accompanying the findings, PolicyLink President and CEO Michael McAfee said, “It is both a moral and economic imperative for racial equity to be at the heart of our country’s coronavirus relief strategy. Our economy is powered by people of color and immigrants, who are the least paid and the most harmed. We are only as safe as the least protected among us, and too many workers are suffering right now.

“Business leaders and policymakers must prioritize protecting the health and economic security of essential workers, supporting those dislocated by this crisis, and laying the foundation for an inclusive recovery.”

The protests and climate surrounding the George Floyd tragedy on the heels of COVID-19 acted as a “double accelerant” in the area of race equity, says Kirschenbaum.

“The coalition-building went from slow-moving to warp speed,” he observed, “and today we are hard at work framing all equity problems in a way that is liberating, sustaining and renewing.”

Jim McFarlin is a guest writer. Learn more about PolicyLink in Kresge’s upcoming report on equity, Inside Out & Outside In, coming in September.