Over the past two years, the chasm in our society between the “haves” and the “have nots” has grown to glaringly obscene levels. We’ve lost numerous members of our family, friendship networks, and community to Covid-19. But we’ve also watched as those in our community who see crisis as motivation for growth have worked hard to reimagine and implement the kinds of practices that move us forward in ways that don’t continue such violent systems. And it is these stories of determination and mutual aid that we must tell as we both honor those among us who pave the path towards social reinvention and the tremendous human spirit that calls out for connection and love. The story of Kathleen Hurd, a woman on a mission in Detroit, and her work to expose the struggles and resilience of Black women throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is one such example.
Given these times of social distancing, I’ve only ever met Kathleen over zoom. I was first introduced to her by my friend Alejandra who was doing canvassing work in the city of Detroit, and who was so inspired by Kathleen’s story that she went on a mission to figure out how and who could amplify her work. During our first conversation, it was clear that Kathleen was passionate about caring for her community, about ensuring that people far and wide understood the difficulties faced by those who’ve survived Covid-19, and of uplifting the stories of the Black women around her who needed to be heard. To that end, after scraping up what money she could, and eventually securing a grant, Kathleen decided to produce a series of video interviews focused on allowing Black women to speak their own truth about the impacts of Covid-19 upon their bodies, the lives of their families, and interactions in the greater community.
Inspired by her sense of commitment and advocacy I knew more people needed to know about Kathleen’s selfless work. So, a few months later, I met with Kathleen, this time along with 4 of the women: Paula Land-Johnson, Laquitta Brown, Alicia Polk, and Kathleen’s daughter, Danielle, who participated in her video series. Their stories, briefly reflected here, tell a story that highlights the strength of the bonds that are created through mutual struggle, the real and scary reasons why it is so important for Black people to know how to advocate for themselves and their loved ones in medical settings, and the very human ways in which those who are often most vulnerable are able to tap in to a collective and spiritual center of healing that can provide comfort and motivation to keep going, even when life may feel at its most arduous point.
Danielle, Kathleen’s daughter, and her battle with illness, are the original motivators for why Kathleen decided to create this project. Kathleen is convinced that a year before anyone was talking about Covid in the US, her daughter, who spent 2 ½ weeks on a ventilator and still has chronic pain issues, was an early victim of the virus. And so when she began hearing news reports in March of 2020 about a disease that had the exact same symptoms as her daughter’s mysterious illness, she said she felt a calling from above to do something.
Danielle: I’m just grateful to be here and be able to share with others and to listen. Having Covid was a nightmare and I’m just so glad my family was there because I don’t think I’d be here if they weren’t.
Kathleen: I want to be in service to others. I truly believe my being able to sit with my daughter, talking, and praying, and calming her down when she got agitated helped to keep her alive. You know I met all kinds of people who didn’t believe COVID was real because they had never met anyone with it and they had all kinds of false visions about it. With all of the hurt and pain, death and heartache, and chaos this virus has caused, I am thankful I have experienced the virus from different perspectives, and grateful to have listened to God’s voice and obeyed. I wanted to create something that tells real stories…that can tell people in the future the story of COVID.
Paula Land Johnson, a cousin of Kathleen, is a nurse. So probably more than most, she’s not only acutely aware of the dangers of Covid-19, but also the ways in which people in Black communities may not be getting access to the care they need. During her own bout with Covid in November of 2020, she was on her back for 10 weeks. It was a nightmare scenario that she says led her to make peace with what she believed at the time was her impending death as she instructed her husband where to find her life insurance policy and information on her burial plot.
Paula: We need to share. A lot of times, people of color have taken the brunt of this virus and you can see the disparities in information. Stuff isn’t always shared with us like it is with the rest of the population. For example, just having a pulse oximeter (a relatively cheap device that estimates the oxygen saturation level in your blood) is a simple way to know when it’s time to seek intervention. Many people die at home in their sleep because they don’t realize how low their oxygen actually is, and so may not be taking their symptoms all that seriously. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s hitting our community so hard.
You know, those who’ve gone through this just need some way to speak about this, and it’s one of the reasons that I started posting my own “Covid Chronicles” on FB while I was sick. I wanted to give people a lowdown and ugly of what was going on with my body so that people could actually know what it’s like. And those posts had people giving me love! Some people sent water and food, some made sure I was okay. It was so good to communicate…to have that back and forth. Because it could be so lonely and heartbreaking to feel like a pariah and be treated like everyone just wants to minimize contact with you. I think a lot of people died so lonely in the hospital.
With a zoom background that displays the universe behind her and big innocent looking eyes, you just know that Laquitta Brown is one of those people who is kind down to her bones. Indeed, though she sat quietly through most of the interview, this quality shone through in the moments she shared. Laquitta survived Covid in March of 2020.
Laquitta: I am a Nursing Assistant and I have worked in a Nursing Home throughout this pandemic. And it really isn’t easy for me to tell my story because I really don’t ever want to talk about it. I took care of 60 people all by myself. And yes, every day I am scared, but so are they.
When I was sick I had two stay away from my 2 children. During that time I went through the five stages of grief and even made peace. And then one day I got a burst of energy and got up. I think the thing that pushed me was that somebody needed to be there. I think my compassion for others is bigger than myself. I feel like I needed to stay around for others, to be the compassionate spirit for others.
But to be clear, it’s still not over. I’m not fully healed. I can’t get over it. I’m in the long-haulers program and facing the consequences of having had Covid. I’m still under the care of three different specialists because I’m in pain and they can’t find the source. And it’s still hitting people close to me. As a matter of fact, I’m preparing for two funerals right now.
You know, it’s just important to pass on the “be kind” movement because it’s the worst thing to feel like you’re dying, but then it’s even worse for you to be treated like “ewww.”
Alicia Polk, who is also the cover artist for this edition, is a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her truth. And, as a creator, she brings the same insight, visionary idealism, and passion into her discussion that is reflected in her art. As she speaks about her own journey through Covid and the multiple losses she’s faced within her family (most recently her two aunts and an uncle) because of the virus, it is clear that she is determined to make something beautiful out of such a painful experience
Alicia Polk: It’s a scary disease. When my aunt was sick she had to communicate with us through an IPAD. It’s not the same as face to face. And then we had to watch the funeral on zoom, so the grieving process has really been upended by this pandemic. I mean we lost a matriarch…everyone’s still going through it.
We can’t die with the dead. For those who passed and those who are suffering, I wanted to give a voice. I didn’t want my grief to fester as I go through this journey. I believe my aunties and my uncle who passed want us to move on…let our ashes, our mourning to turn into joy. I want to be an example of that. I go through moments where I am sad, where I want to call them, but I keep pushing through my art. We have to find outlets for our grief. Don’t look at death, celebrate their lives. How has their passing changed how you will live in the future?
Though each of these women’s journeys and stories are unique, they also expose the ways in which our experiences of illness, death, grief, and healing are so intimately connected to and wrapped up in the lives of those who are a part of our wider community as well. From Alicia who agreed that part of what kept her alive was knowing her body and being able to advocate for the doctors to prescribe her blood thinners when she was sick, to Paula and Laquitta who are both experiencing long hauler symptoms acknowledging that the more you share the closer we can get to finding cures for everyone’s pain, to these women’s testimony that being a part of Kathleen’s project has offered a way to channel their hurt into something productive, it is clear that we all do better when we embrace togetherness, speaking up when we feel something isn’t right, and practicing intentional acts of care.
As we wrapped up our conversation I asked if anyone had any last thoughts they wanted to share. So, in closing, in the spirit of Kathleen’s mission, I’ll let these amazing women speak for themselves:
Danielle: Stay prayed up, continue having joy, and continue to wear masks!
Alicia: Kathleen gives so much of herself to the community. I’m just so grateful for her and the work she’s done. We can’t live with a defeated attitude. Keep your faith, hope & joy. Even after death there is life.
Paula: Wear your masks and be your own advocate or pick someone who can properly advocate for you. We HAVE to learn how to advocate for ourselves!
Laquitta: Everybody needs everybody right now. Make sure you live your days being kind. Yeah, the best medicine is just to be kind.
To watch the interviews please visit: To be Added before final sendoff
Kathleen would like to send a special thanks and lots of love to all 9 women who participated in the video series: Danielle Herd, Aisha Shadid, Qiana Vines, Antha Williams, Johtasha Mosley, Lauren Sowell, Laquitta Brown, Paula Land-Johnson and Alicia Polk.
But that’s not even all of it. True to her spirit, Kathleen continues to find ways to support her community through intentional love. Join her for the series “You, Me, Them, We and Covid-19” aimed at providing a safe space to share, create, and heal together through community support and facilitated by trained professionals. Details on the flyer!