10 Atlanta Nurses On COVID, Uncertainty & Embracing Their Calling

"It takes a special person and God chose me."

Human Interest

This article is in partnership with National Black Nurses Association.

As crazy as 2020 has been, it has stood as a reminder of the power in the healing process. Though as a society we encountered our share of pain as we were met with job losses, furloughs, civil unrest, untimely deaths, as well as mental and emotional overwhelm, we are doing our best to survive and come together as one. We have become more united in our shared trauma, and have begun to shift our focus on areas where it's needed. The pain and the release of healing. Assisting us in our healing journey both figuratively and literally on the frontlines of this pandemic are nurses.

These frontline workers have long been considered essential by our society, but perhaps their necessity has not been as felt as it has been in the past years. As the spread of the pandemic widened, cases increased, and hospitals became overcrowded with those affected gravely by the disease, nurses proved to be the ones offering a human touch to the way they worked to heal. They went above and beyond to make ailing patients who were isolated due to coronavirus to feel less of the sting of being alone. Add economic struggles to the disparities experienced by marginalized groups and communities in the healthcare system and the disease affecting POC at disproportionate levels, navigating these uncertain times can be difficult to say the least.

For the work that nurses have had to do as healers during this trying time, xoNecole is thanking them in a major way with our partnership with National Black Nurses Association. Below Atlanta nurses and Wellstar nurses fill us in on how they are navigating work demands, patient losses, and fear while embracing their calling.

Alicia Coley, RN

Courtesy of Alicia Coley

Title: Travel Nurse

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: 10 years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"It's definitely been a major adjustment compared to pre-COVID working conditions in the medical field. I noticed there had been a higher than normal demand for nurses due to increased hospitalizations during this pandemic. Full-time staff nurses had been overwhelmed with the patient load. Therefore, we as travelers came in to provide temporary relief. Gowning up from head to toe with the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for every single patient had become the new norm since the patients I worked with were all COVID-19 positive.

"Lack of supply of PPE, at times, was frustrating. I remember units having to be opened up so we can create more space for admissions. One of the hospital campuses I worked at was re-opened and dedicated to taking COVID patients from all the nearby surrounding hospitals. Overall, you had to have tough skin, catch on quickly and care for the sickly patients. Working as a team was very important!"

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"It wasn't always easy because family members were not allowed on the units AT ALL. Therefore, we were required to call and give an update to family members each shift in the afternoons. It was important for me to remain kind, be empathetic and take care of patients the best I could. There was one particular patient that I saw decline from fully functioning to flaccid over time. That was disheartening. I ended up spending more time in their room because now they could no longer do anything for themselves.

"Continuity of care is encouraged, so you really get to know the patient and you also become familiar with their family member(s) via phone. For this specific patient, I made sure the family got to FaceTime their family member per their request when I worked. Although the prognosis was poor, I believe the family was just grateful to see the patient while they could and talk to them weekly."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"I naturally enjoy learning about topics on health and wellness. In the midst of the pandemic, I ended up starting my own business where I sell an all-natural elderberry syrup. It's paramount during these times because it's a wonderful immune booster that is loaded with antioxidants, has anti-viral, antitussive and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that if you take elderberry syrup within the first 24-48 hours of infection, you decrease the severity and duration of your cold/flu-like symptoms! My company is called Alchemi Naturals and this is what keeps me motivated and busy.

"I wake up with a sense of purpose and feeling more fulfilled knowing that I am helping to bring people back to wellness. To support my overall wellness during this time, I make it a priority to meditate daily, exercise regularly, eat a well-balanced diet and consume content on personal and spiritual growth. I also stay busy with learning more ways to grow my business and bring as much value as I can to my customers and my social media platform."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"One thing I can say for sure is that I am a huge proponent of boosting one's immune system. I think that is what I advocate the most because it is naturally designed to protect you. Working in a number of different hospital settings will really open your eyes when you come in contact with so many people that have pre-existing health conditions. I have become more passionate about sharing health-conscious information and encouraging people to take care of themselves. These times have solidified my feelings of purpose in my field because I realize now more than ever that nurses are needed! Patients depend on us. It's important that we show up, work as a team and get everyone back to their loved ones."

Tanisha Mcfarlane, RN

Courtesy of Tanisha Mcfarlane

Title: Travel Nurse; currently working in Emergency Department

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: 10 years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"Being on the frontlines of a pandemic has been very challenging physically, mentally and emotionally. I love and enjoy helping other people so becoming a nurse was just an extension of my purpose. Prior to the pandemic, nursing has had its challenges (working short staff, being verbally abused and sometimes physically abused by patients, and working 12 hours and only being allowed to take a 30-minute break). During the pandemic, some of the normal struggles were intensified but with added stress due to the increased volume and acuity of patients.

"Death is always hard but watching so many people expire in such a small time period was nerve-wracking and it became the new normal, bad as it sounds. In May, I lost three coworkers in one month due to COVID and I think that was when the reality of this pandemic really set in."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"The 'no visitor' policy was very much a struggle for everyone. On a personal level whenever I am not well, I call on my family for emotional support so I thoroughly understood the emotional stress patients endured during their hospital stay. I felt that our duty as nurses was to make patients feel as comfortable as possible even if that meant finding a few minutes to video chat family members as a comfort measure.

"At times, it was overwhelming because we were working under a lot of stress, with limited resources and short staff but we were now responsible for updating family members via phone. Imagine finally catching up on things and then the moment you think you had a moment to take a minute to yourself, you have several people on hold waiting on reassurance and depending on you for their confidence that their loved ones are going to be OK."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"I have always made my family a priority but recently they have been the only thing that keeps me going. I am a first-time mom and that in addition to the pandemic has been heavy mentally but every day I choose to be better than I was yesterday overall. In my downtime, I look up new recipes to try, exercise and plan safe but fun things for my two-year-old son. My son couldn't have been here at a better time because he is my encouragement to stay positive even in my struggles and I am grateful. My husband-to-be is also a nurse so it is helpful that I can vent to him and he understands on a level that not everyone can."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"The pandemic has solidified that my purpose has always been to help people. My biggest fear was always not being able to protect the people around me from such a virus. I cared more for them than myself and again nursing is the extension of my purpose. If I was to extract my personal attributes from my career and just looked at it on a financial gain, then nursing wouldn't be the field I would have chosen and that's how I knew it was more than the money for me. It takes a special person and God chose me."

Brandy Perry, BSN, RN

Courtesy of Brandy Perry

Title: Charge Nurse in Progressive Care Unit at Wellstar Paulding Hospital

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: Six years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"Being on the frontline of the pandemic has been one of the most challenging times in my career. Caring for patients during this pandemic has been emotionally challenging because we are continuously fighting this battle for our patients and families. I pray every day that my patients will not say their last goodbye but will instead receive the great news that they can go home to their family."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"It has been challenging to watch my patients not having their families with them during this difficult time. On the other hand, I have gained many honorary aunts, uncles, parents, and grandparents in the last year. I am privileged that I was able to connect deeper with my patients as I know they needed my support and guidance more than ever."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"I find myself calling on my children, family members, and friends more often to check on them. It's also very important to have some downtime to rest and self-reflect on any stressful and challenging circumstances that I have encountered."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"I have never been so proud to be a nurse. I truly see the difference we make every day for our community."

Ashley Pugh, RN


Title: Burn ICU Registered Nurse

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: 10 months

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"I came [into the nursing field] at a time when COVID was already ramping up so I don't know anything else. There's obviously less family at the bedside, but since I'm in a critical care area we are able to make exceptions for end of life situations."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"Fortunately, the COVID numbers are relatively low in the Burn ICU. We are also the only unit that cares for children. This allows us to make some exceptions in visitation on a case by case basis. Our leadership team also works hard to ensure that we are staffed in a way that allows us to have those caring moments with our patients."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"I'm not ashamed to say that I pamper myself big time. I've probably purchased every fancy skincare trend you can think of. I'm also a Louisiana girl so I've used this time to get in the kitchen and cook a lot of true Southern cuisine."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"This experience allows me to put faces on policies. A lot of times it's hard to understand how the government and political decisions impact individuals. Not anymore. It's important for nurses to use their voices and participate in the decision-making process. We have the experience and we have insight that is critical to improving the health of our country."

Lauren W., RN

Courtesy of Lauren W.

Title: Travel Nurse; currently working in Progressive Care Units

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: Seven years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"Since the pandemic began in early 2020, there have been many changes in how nurses (and the healthcare system as a whole) approached patient care. For instance, while limiting the spread of infectious diseases within the hospital has always been a top priority, the stress around personal protective equipment, patient procedures, hospital staffing, and visitor policies have been the most highlighted this past year. We increasingly realize the importance of each role in this system. You appreciate the environmental service workers that clean your isolation rooms just as much as you appreciate that manager going the extra mile to get the appropriate staff and supplies. Do we still have a long road ahead of us? Yes. But I think we see how much we are interconnected, and how that plays into providing the best care possible."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"It was tough to see my patients feel alone and physically isolated from their support systems during this pandemic. Part of quality patient care is incorporating the family in the process. This gives the patient comfort in what could be the most stressful time of their lives, hospitalization. On top of that, you include a global pandemic that is taking lives every day. Therefore, as much as possible, I personally encourage that patient's family or emergency contact to call the patient throughout their stay, or make sure that the physician updates the family on their treatment plan in order to keep them involved and their anxiety low.

"If I have some extra time in between work duties, I even stay and talk with patients for a few more minutes. Most times, they just want a little more education on their treatment, to share their family or pet stories, or even just chat about their favorite TV program. While it may not seem like much, it could mean the world to someone, and make a stressful day turn around for the both of us."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"Due to a constant changing environment, work-life balance has been extremely important in maintaining my well-being. I found that doing solid work on my own mental, physical, and spiritual health helped me get through it. It is impossible to pour from an empty cup. Therefore, much effort is made in maintaining a healthy diet, my spiritual practices, and a support system of friends and family to keep my cup full. Even if that means setting boundaries, spending time alone catching up on my hobbies or favorite TV show, or even practicing social distancing with my mask as I take a nature walk. I have to take care of myself first, period. Thankfully, I also have been afforded the opportunity to leave my work at my job for the most part. I HAVE that title, I AM NOT that title."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"Throughout my nursing career, I am grateful to have worked as a leader and mentor in several institutions. Yet, my experiences this past year has solidified the importance of employee health and health education for everyone. Therefore, I recently obtained my graduate degree in public health and started a nurse blog, Hey Leux, to help me pursue this field. No organization can be successful without the health and well-being of their employees. Studies have even shown that contributions to an employee's work-life balance, training, compensation, and work environment can increase productivity and quality of service. I hope to combat this in the next chapter of my nursing career as an educator, and to continue to be a positive light and a guiding hand to those who need it."

Maisha 'Mai' Harvey, NP

Courtesy of Maisha 'Mai' Harvey

Title: Nurse Practitioner for Emergency Medicine

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: 15 years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"Burnout is at an all-time high. People are tired! You know burnout is real when you have no desire to work any overtime. They are literally throwing money at nurses and providers all across the country because of the shortage. It's one thing to work a lot of hours but pre- vs post-pandemic overtime just isn't the same. Between the pandemic, politics and the regular stressors of life, it wasn't easy facing a mysterious disease that's literally killing people daily.

"In full transparency, I shifted to Emergency Medicine from another specialty just three months prior to the pandemic as I was on the edge of burnout. I came off a schedule that was seven days on/seven days off to currently working three days a week. The new schedule has been a blessing for me in the pandemic as it has allowed me time to recover both mentally and physically. I've been intentional about preventing burnout which is why I haven't worked much overtime. The extra money comes with an emotional toll that's just not worth the trade for me."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"One side of the visitation restrictions not well known to the public is the personal aspect. My family, friends and friends of friends reach out for me to check on their loved ones who are admitted to the hospital. I've had family members and friends who have driven past numerous hospitals just to be at my hospital. They knew I'd be there and could always come by to check on them. Over the months, I had joy and some sadness making my rounds to check on people. Unfortunately, not everyone has survived. Experiencing this closeness followed by death more than once has emotionally been difficult but I wouldn't change a thing, nor do I have any regrets. It has been an honor to be there for the patient and their loved ones."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"I've actually spent more time in nature than ever. Previously, if it wasn't a beach or exploring a new county, I was not about that outside life! I found myself enjoying taking simple walks in my neighborhood. My meditation walks are very peaceful and energizing. It was something about the sun beaming on my skin and the alone time with my thoughts. It has been a much-needed escape from the unknown. Over the summer, I found local parks and even made day trips to random parks all over the state. Who knew Georgia had so many hiking trails with astonishing waterfalls? I even purchased a few plants but that isn't going too well right now. But they still bring me joy!"

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"My purpose has always been to educate my people about health. It's the main reason I went back to obtain not one but two advanced degrees. The pandemic has added an additional layer confirming this is where I'm supposed to be. People don't seem to understand how I can comfortably walk into a COVID patient's room with no fear. My response, I'm covered in the blood of Jesus and PPE! I was built for this!"

Stephanie McLean

Courtesy of Stephanie Mclean

Title: COVID Crisis Travel Nurse

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: Seven years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"The COVID-19 crisis was something we as nurses did not anticipate, but we had to adapt quickly. Being on the frontlines and having to adjust to new screenings, protocols, and procedures daily was very overwhelming and a change from our routine pre-pandemic. My encounters with patients are met with more of a mental challenge, because now I must make sure I keep myself protected from this very contagious virus. From wearing an N95 mask for 12 plus hours, gowning up in full PPE to go into each room, and sometimes having to relay messages to patients from other healthcare providers are just a few of the ways my world has changed. This shift in the healthcare system has caused an increased patient care load and decreased time to really spend with each patient, which is tough for nurses like me who enjoy talking and spending time with their patients."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"One of the hardest parts of nursing during the pandemic has been trying to be a support system to my patients. Since there is a no visitor policy unless it is extenuating circumstances, we have become the closest thing to family on top of being their nurse. It is a challenging task when you become the only listening ear for your patients while they are experiencing so many emotions and spend most of their time alone. I have felt very overwhelmed at times because I am constantly thinking about how I can provide the best care on top of running around, charting, passing medications, and keeping up with doctors' orders.

"On one occasion, I was taking care of a patient that was battling terminal cancer and the policy was unless a patient was on comfort care, he or she could not have visitors. At this time, the decision was not made yet whether this patient would be transitioned to comfort care-only measures. I was on the phone with this man's wife; she was screaming and crying saying she just wanted to visit her husband. She stated they had young children at home, and she knew he was dying, and she just wanted to visit him. That broke my heart. I remember going into the manager's office and explaining the situation almost in tears. I just could not imagine being married and not being able to see my spouse in his last few moments. Thankfully, this situation was rectified, but I will always remember that conversation."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"On my off days, I take time to destress and I do a lot of self-care. Some of those things include exercising, juicing, meditating, and journaling. These activities help me to declutter my mind and recover mentally so I can be rejuvenated when I return to work."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"Working during this pandemic has solidified my purpose of why I became a nurse seven years ago. My passion has always been to serve people from all walks of life and play a part in them returning to their optimal level of health. In this pandemic, I feel like that has only been magnified. There are days that I have been stretched thin and pushed to the limits with so much responsibility. But in these moments, I am reminded that I was placed here for a reason and my patients are depending on me to deliver the best care possible!"

Bianca Ferguson, BSN, RN

Courtesy of Bianca Ferguson

Title: Medical-Surgical/Telemetry Registered Nurse

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: Five years and seven months

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"For me being on the frontlines of a pandemic has been a life-changing experience. Before this pandemic, I went to work with a clear idea of how I would be taking care of my patients. I was confident that my skills and knowledge would get me through each shift. For the first time in my career, each day I walk into work with uncertainty of how the day will end."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"It has been an overwhelming, heartbreaking yet rewarding experience. For nurses, not only are we having to do our job, we are also having to be there to support our patients emotionally because their families aren't able to physically do so. I also feel that it is necessary to step in because emotional support can be beneficial to overall healing. It is heartbreaking because not only are these patients fighting to overcome COVID, they may feel alone, so if I can assist by staying in the room a little longer or holding my patient's hand to reassure them that they aren't alone, I'll do that."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"During these times, I have been lucky to have an amazing support system. My family and friends have supported and encouraged all my decisions during these times. I have found myself traveling to different states and assisting hospitals where the needs are far worse than what I have experienced in my hometown. I am supporting myself by praying, staying positive, and taking all precautions necessary to stay safe. As far as my mental health, I make it a requirement to meet with my therapist frequently to release frustration and recharge my positive energy."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"These times have only reassured me that I made the right decision to become a nurse. I made the right decision to choose a career that allows me to see someones vulnerability and deliver holistic care without judgment. During this pandemic, I have had the pleasure of being an ambassador for a movement here in Atlanta to help those in need. #wekeepatlantaalive is a movement geared to give credit to everyone on the frontlines while giving back to the community. A small percentage of any merchandise purchased will be put back into our community. Find out more here."

Kristeen Thrash BSN, RN

Courtesy of Kristeen Thrash

Title: Assistant Nurse Manager at Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: Seven years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"Working during a pandemic is something I never saw coming when I was in nursing school. It was something that I studied and read about but never fathomed. When COVID-19 first hit, we were afraid, nervous, and concerned for our team members and patients. However, I felt prepared. My professional experience and training as a nurse has helped me push through and remember why I am here in the first place."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"Serving as a support system to my patients has given me more purpose. There are so many joyful memories of serving our patients during the pandemic, including helping a patient connect with family by holding up the phone to initiate a FaceTime conversation. We have gotten extremely creative when it comes to getting our patients the support that they need."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"Something I try to make sure I do daily is unplug. When I am at home, I limit my time on my phone and make sure that I spend quality time with my daughters. I also enjoy reading my bible. COVID-19 has taught me how to seize the moment. Before COVID, I would always have my phone in my hand and spend countless hours watching TV, but those things are no longer a priority. My family, especially my children, have been a source of renewed strength, peace, and motivation. I also make sure that I take excellent care of myself spiritually, mentally, and emotionally."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"I feel like everything happens for a reason. I feel like God chose me to be here, in this place, because He has a higher calling on healthcare workers' lives during this season. Nurses are compassionate and feel that it is our duty to protect and save our communities, and I think that we (Wellstar and around the world) are doing an awesome job at it! This pandemic has shown me how strong and resilient healthcare workers really are, and it makes me proud to be a part of such a selfless a group of people."

Nurse Keziah, CPN

Courtesy of Nurse Keziah

Title: Certified Pediatric Nurse in Medical-Surgical, specializing in pediatric surgery and trauma cases

Length of Time She's Been a Nurse: Six years

The difference between working in a pandemic versus other times in her career:

"2020 was definitely the year of the nurse. The devastating impact of the COVID-19 virus on our communities made the role of nurses more important than ever before. There have been many tough days in my career as a nurse, but nothing comes close to the stress, fear, and anxiety that I have felt working as a nurse in the midst of this pandemic. In the early months of the pandemic, the hospital would adopt new system changes almost daily as new evidence was introduced about COVID-19. It was difficult to navigate through all of the changes at first, but with time, things became more adaptable. Health screenings, temperature checks, the use of masks, and visitor restrictions have become normal features of my work life."

How it has felt to be even more of a support system to patients amid COVID:

"COVID-19 has been devastating for everyone involved. Strict visitation restrictions have affected all patients, not only those diagnosed with COVID-19. It has been difficult seeing the mental health and psychosocial effects of the pandemic on our pediatric patients. Many patients are admitted with complex psychosocial backgrounds where parental support is limited or non-existent. On our unit, we have experienced an increase in gunshot wounds and child abuse cases, particularly affecting our young African-American patients. Let's not forget, we are fighting two different wars here: COVID-19 and racism. Racism and implicit bias have been issues in nursing for a long time. I have found it increasingly important to provide support to patients with little to no support after suffering from trauma. I have made an effort to sit and talk with patients who are alone or hold crying infants who have been deprived from their parents."

What she does for mental health and wellness during a pandemic:

"It truly takes a special person to be a nurse. We often neglect our own self-care, while working hard to care for those in our communities. I have experienced a ton of anxiety and depression during the pandemic as I have struggled to manage stress from work and school while being forced to socially distance in the midst of a global pandemic. As a night shift nurse, I often struggled with social isolation and sleep deprivation; but these challenges have become a lot more difficult to manage as the pandemic progresses. I have created wellness goals for myself to holistically address my mental and physical health needs. These goals include reducing screen-time on mobile devices and television, reading more books for leisure, cooking healthy meals at home, increasing my physical activity, blogging more consistently, and being more intentional in my interactions with family members and friends.

"This past year has taught me to the importance of maintaining strong connections. Life can be taken away from us in an instant, so it is important to forgive others and cherish each moment with those special people in your life."

How her purpose as a nurse has been solidified:

"Although pediatric patients were being diagnosed with COVID-19, this population did not require hospitalization at the same rates as adult populations. At the start of the pandemic, low census rates resulted in many lay-offs and reduced work hours for hospital staff at my current organization. I would sometimes feel guilty being flexed from a shift, knowing that nurses around the world were losing their lives from working overtime in COVID-19 hotspots. But after seeing the impact that the care I am providing has had on my own community, I understand that each nurse plays an important role in preserving our communities and keeping our nation healthy.

"Nurses around the world are risking their own physical and mental health to provide care and support for strangers while putting themselves and their own families at risk. Working in healthcare during a pandemic has been difficult, but I have never been more proud to be a nurse. We are the true heroes."

For more information about the National Black Nurses Association, visit their website, www.nbna.org. Keep up with Wellstar by following them on Instagram @wellstarhealth.

Featured image via Alicia Coley

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

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