In June of 2020, the J. Walton Bissell Foundation refined its mission and compass to respond to manifest needs. We place attention on the present and long-term effects of Covid-19 in Hartford. Responsiveness to the wounds of racism and other oppression which inform grave disparities and produce different trajectories in recovery matters to us. Leaders of any ethnicity who are committed to addressing inequalities in any form, you have our attention.

No one will be ignored.



Disasters expose fault lines.


Gulfs and valleys appear where before there were cracks and crevasses. We can no longer pretend.


Since its onset, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a lens into systemic racism and inequities across all domains of our lives. The urgency of new responses could not be greater.


Relying on familiarity from other disasters, we outline a model of the first three stages: Stage 1 is emergency preparedness and then the ruin from the event; Stage 2 is triaging and measuring damage so it may inform responses; and, Stage 3 is the beginnings of initial recovery and mitigation to prevent further harm. Each informs potent and anti-racist action steps – around which we set out to share responsibility.


Stage 1 of Covid-19 included acute illness and tacit ill-preparedness. A sobering number of Hartford residents were in hospitals with severe infection. A disproportionate group of those needing long-term critical care were patients of color. In addition, one group of employed people were exposed to the virus multiple times a day delivering packages to another group of people working from home. A number of households continue to include family living in close quarters, absent witnesses to abuse occurring behind closed doors. Isolation is inimical to wellbeing. New subvariants continue to emerge. The news lands heavily in depleted communities.


Stage 2 has run parallel to Stage 1. As the Covid-19 virus and its subvariants have proved resistant to eradication, we continue to survey the damage. We designated “essential workers,” who continue to be disproportionately Black American and Latinx persons, including undocumented immigrants.


Narrowing our survey locally, we know that over half of children enrolled in the Hartford Public Schools were absent or unaccounted for when schools closed and learning moved to remote.2  Families did not have sufficient computer equipment nor internet bandwidth. And once vaccines became available, a lack in technology severely disadvantaged those who sought immunizations in a roll-out that pitted person-against-person for an online reservation. Neighborhood clinics in cities like Hartford were serving residents of more affluent suburbs who could more readily secure appointments online.3


Need for emergency shelters to escape violence inside homes accelerated, as did the severity of the violence.4  Callers to 211 in emotional distress or expressing suicidal ideations increased.5  Reports of human trafficking grew. In addition, before the pandemic in 2020, there had never been such a high number of “transgender and gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by [...] violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women.” 6


U.S. Census assessments showed: “Black adults were more likely than White adults to have taken on debt to pay for household expenses in January [2021], even after controlling for economic differences.”  Analysts also determined an increase in food insecurity among communities of color. “Forty [40%] percent of people of color [in Connecticut] were food insecure compared with 24% of white residents.” 8


Both at local and national levels, vaccine and booster rates continue to be widely disparate, with rates in Latinx, Black, and American Indian communities showing the lowest counts 9 : an illustration that tells far more about our nation’s history than it does about individual behavior. 10


Stage 3 is underway. It concerns disaster recovery. We fathom the unspeakable: disparities in wellbeing based on race and ethnicity; gender and gender identity; trauma and mental health; religion; age; visual, cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation; isolation; and home locations spell disparities in our recovery from this pandemic.


In Connecticut, mask mandates are largely gone and large gatherings have resumed. And while we may relax in an understanding that “the worst is behind us,” there are individuals who have yet to experience their most challenging illness. Paradoxically this stage portends new suffering and harm because of the gulf between visible and invisible. While one group is joyfully reuniting with loved ones, another group is grieving losses of life, livelihoods, and homes. As one of our partners has told us, “the onset of illness, insecurity, and income shock have compounded” existing trauma in families. These families and individuals’ recovery from the resulting trauma is forecast to follow a different trajectory. The casual, ongoing association of the virus with a harmless seasonal flu deepens wounds.  


We know that trauma for youth, as well as adults, is compounded by each additional experience of trauma. Therefore, pre-existing trauma is exacerbated by the traumas brought on by Covid-19. For children and youth, examples of such trauma range from involuntary relocation to deaths of loved ones.


Pre-existing trauma and other health conditions are known to have increased risk of severe outcomes. “Like adults, children with obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease, sickle cell disease, or immunosuppression” can also be factors in recovery. 11


Pre-existing racism has increased the severity of outcomes over the course of the pandemic, and in turn will increase the severity of hardships in recovery.


We also know Covid-19 has generated challenges for those with disabilities. The pandemic has increased mental health vulnerability for children and adults. Many in our society think of mental health as something individuals have responsibility for creating and ending; but that is a belief not dissimilar from thinking of racism as something a person of color has responsibility for creating and ending.


We spoke above of Hartford children who became absent from online learning due to limited technology. Although Hartford students largely returned to classroom teaching a year ago, we have heard from our partners that HPS schools are continuing to work hard to meet academic gaps as well as an increased need for social-emotional attention. Some youth have retreated inwards and are difficult to re-engage in the classroom.


We have learned that children with disabilities suffered greater learning losses than their counterparts. We’ve heard that some children who are immunocompromised, or have family members who are, have left public school altogether. Their parents are in search of new strategies to home-school. Pediatrician Edith Bracho-Sanchez expresses concern that removal of protections can lead parents to believe that their high-risk and disabled children’s lives are “an acceptable loss.” 12


In solidarity with those who live with disabilities of all types, we support new strategies and recovery at the pace that is relevant. One recent development is promising. We hoped that those deemed “essential workers” would be given respite, remuneration commensurate with their sacrifices, or parallel advancement including possible protection for undocumented essential workers. Our State Legislature launched the Premium Pay Program, informally known as “hero pay,” in August. 13  Nonetheless, there are depleted essential worker communities registering the stress of Covid-19. One community hit hard is nurses. Surveys show high burnout and resignations are occurring at a rate higher than local universities can graduate new nurses. 14,15  There is tension at the intersection of a nursing shortage and an intention to implement recommendations from Community Conversations published this year “to strengthen the public health infrastructure in order to address health issues associated COVID and other health disparities.” 16


A new, salient, potentially injurious part of disaster recovery might be captured best within a neighborhood, faith community, or friend group. Individuals who have felt a shared sense of identity with others may notice others’ lives have improved, but theirs have not. This group can feel the blow of unfairness more fiercely than they might in everyday comparisons. The risk of people harming themselves and rates of suicide become more perilous in this later stage of disaster recovery when it seems that one is not ‘in the same boat’ with one’s peers. 17





Knowing all this, making certain diverse trajectories of recovery will not render any person invisible nor blamed for their lived experience, we at the J. Walton Bissell Foundation pledge to meet each aspect of recovery with deep resolve.


We are devoting room so each of us here might deepen our understanding of the privileges we occupy as individuals and leaders of a private foundation. The intention in looking in the mirror with honesty and humility is to dedicate ourselves genuinely to something we are calling allyship. We are learning more about the harms suffered by members of all marginalized groups in our community and believing what we hear. It has meant asking new questions about how we might change and also become agents of change. It has included this unflinching priorities statement, and it will continue to include refusal to look away. 


We are making room to maintain this work and to keep asking questions. Our work is an iterative process in which we return to ask are we active allies, passive allies, neutral allies, passive opponents, or active opponents? 18, 19 





It is a well-examined dynamic that natural disasters expose duplicitous and oppressive institutionalized systems and structures. Natural disasters become catalysts to change. 


An example of disaster recovery from 50 years ago still has relevance today. In 1972, an earthquake occurred near Managua, Nicaragua. It caused widespread casualties in the capital city: over 10,000 were killed, over 20,000 were seriously injured, and over 250,000 were left homeless. 20  Two-thirds of the population faced food shortage and disease; water was polluted and unsafe to drink. 21  The injuries directly caused by the earthquake are one measure of the disaster. And, yet, what was exposed was the dishonesty of institutions and the exploitation of citizens. Already difficult conditions were no longer tolerable. The earthquake and its aftermath propelled the Nicaraguan people to a revolution. The earthquake of 1972 is said to be catalytic to the overturn of a harsh and inhuman regime in 1979. 22




Disasters expose fault lines.


Where stiff ground is broken apart and where savage systems have been dismantled, new openings and possibilities become apparent.





[1] Bethany Meilani Hamilton, a rising surfer, lost her left arm at age 13 to a tiger shark. In a comeback story that inspires many, she competes professionally, winning titles. “I didn’t need easy, I just needed possible” are her words. Hamilton offers Beautifully Flawed Retreats for girls and young women who have experienced traumatic limb loss. Documentary “Unstoppable” chronicles Hamilton’s story. Trailer is here


[2] Rebecca Lurye, “During a year lost to the coronavirus pandemic, many Hartford students are ‘spiraling’ and falling further behind.” The Hartford Courant, February 21, 2021. Link


[3] Conversations convened by Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, including specifically “Vaccines in CT – How Funders Can Improve Equity.” March 30, 2021. Link 


[4] Information from Barbara Damon, President and CEO, of Prudence Crandall Center. Quoted in, “As pandemic grinds on, domestic violence shelters grapple with budget gaps, growing needs.” The Connecticut Mirror, October 18, 2020. Link 


[5] Lisa Tepper Bates, President and CEO of United Way of Connecticut, quoted in “211 Connecticut to Double Staffing for Phone-based Crisis Response Team, Expanding Resources Amidst Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month,” Connecticut by the Numbers website, September 22, 2021. Link 


[6] “LGBTQ community sees severe impact from COVID-19 pandemic, study finds.” ABC News. 12/22/2020. Researchers analyzed data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Link 


[7] Lindsay M. Monte and Daniel J. Perez-Lopez, “How the Pandemic Affected Black and White Households.” United States Census Bureau, July 21, 2021. Link 


[8] Data from Connecticut Foodshare Survey. Quoted in Siobhan McGirl, “CT Foodshare: Disparities in food insecurity increased in 2020.”, September 23, 2021. Link


[9] “Race, Ethnicity and Age: A Look at Connecticut's Vaccination Rates.” Hartford Healthcare, August 18, 2021. Link 


[10] “Learning from the Pandemic: A strategic proposal for strengthening the collaborative foundation underpinning the public health infrastructure as a pathway to addressing chronic vaccine hesitancy and health disparities,” sponsored by Community Resource Alliance and Institute for Community Research. Position Paper was sourced by “COVID Conversations.”


[11] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with Certain Medical Conditions: Additional Information on Children and Teens. Updated February 25, 2022. Link 


[12] Edith Bracho-Sanchez, MD, Director of Pediatric Telemedicine at Columbia University-New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Executive Producer and Host of “Las Doctoras Recomiendan,” featured in Christina Maxouris, “’We’re doing everything we can to survive’: As the US looks to moves on from Covid-19, high-risk and disabled Americans feel forgotten.” February 20, 2022. Link 


[13] "CT essential private sector workers can now apply for pandemic bonuses.” The Connecticut Mirror, August 5, 2022.  Link 


[14] “Third of nurses plan to leave their jobs in 2022, survey finds.” Fierce Healthcare, March 22, 2022.  Link 


[15] “Demand for nurses is urgent in Connecticut. Colleges and universities can’t keep up.” The Hartford Courant, June 12, 2022.  Link 


[16]  “Learning from the Pandemic: A strategic proposal for strengthening the collaborative foundation underpinning the public health infrastructure as a pathway to addressing chronic vaccine hesitancy and health disparities.”  Op. cit.


[17] Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Covid-19 Series” and its webinars April 2020-July 2020. See also “Mental Health and Trauma.”  Link 


[18] Katrina Shields, In the Tiger's Mouth: An Empowerment Guide for Social Action. A scale of allyship is illustrated as the ‘ally social barometer’ on page 54. New Society Publishers, 1994. Link


[19] Our interpretation of allyship is partly informed by presentations provided by Service Never Sleeps, a Black-led organization empowering and catalyzing individual and community action to advance racial and social justice through allyship and skills-based service.


[20] ‘Case report: Nicaragua-earthquake, December 1972.’ Agency for International Development, 1973, as cited in Urban History Journal, Volume 42, Issue 4. Link


[21] "Thousands Dead as Quakes Strike Nicaraguan City," The New York Times, December 24, 1972. [The front page article included: “Reports from neighboring Costa Rica said the Nicaraguan Health Ministry said at least 18,000 persons had been killed, either by collapsing buildings or fires that followed. An additional 40,000 persons were injured.”]


[22] David Johnson Lee, “De-centring Managua: Post-Earthquake Reconstruction and Revolution in Nicaragua. August 12, 2015. Published online by Cambridge University Press. Link


Rosa Krewson, “How the Managua Earthquake of 1972 Shifted Nicaragua's Social Structure for a Revolution.” April 8, 2017. Published by Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. Link 

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© J. Walton Bissell Foundation, Inc., 2022