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COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall: One Economy Building Opportunity for All

Economy Virtual Town Hall

At a recent COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall, panelists offered steps that organizations can take following the pandemic. Part one of the event featured guest speakers Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, and Kevin Walker, president and CEO of Northwest Area Foundation. Joshua Barr, director of the DSM Civil and Human Rights Commission, and Elgin Rucker, anchor for KCCI, moderated the online meeting.

Issues + Disparities Yet to Be Addressed

Kevin touched on the following issues and disparities that have been brought to the forefront by COVID-19 that will need to be addressed by leadership within the community:

  • Closing income disparity
  • Considering racial disparity and inequity, racial wealth gap
  • Disrupting the status quo within education, housing, health, etc.
    • “System is not broken, system is producing outcomes it was designed to produce”
  • Facing severe social challenges/sicknesses that the pandemic has shined light on
  • Moving forward to something better (not going back to normal)
    • Following recovery, re-imagining systems and structures, then restructuring

Overview of African Americans in Polk County (Pre-COVID-19 Data)

Population of Polk County

Twenty-seven percent of all Iowans of African American descent live in Polk county, making up 4% of the state population and 7% of Polk County population. The African American population of Des Moines proper is 11%.

COVID-19 Reveals Disparity

At Prosperity Now, it’s the organization’s mission to ensure everyone in country has path to prosperity. Rather than causing it, Gary says the COVID-19 crisis reveals disparity that has been there all along, including the following health and economic disparities:

  • Disproportionate risk of developing severe or lethal illness — will affect low wage/income populations, native Americans, immigrants, African American, Latino populations
  • Unequal economic resources
    • 37% liquid asset poverty meaning there is not enough in savings to last three months

Financial Stability

This country is based on everyone having the opportunity to participate. This means paying taxes and voting, as well as being able to create economic opportunity. However, if you don’t have the opportunity to build wealth, it is difficult to participate in democracy. What happens if you don’t have access to a checking account or you can’t pay your rent? How can we as individuals rise together to create positive change?

Gary says the best way is to contact legislators and make an impact on the work being done on the national level. Lobby state or city representatives who decide how resources are allocated. Band with others over a common agenda and participate in democracy.

Kevin says the importance of holding elected officials accountable to the community is crucial. If there is no accountability, the next step is to organize and push back on systems and structures who aren’t serving the entire community. This cannot be emphasized enough. There are systemic issues that make it impossible for many individuals to get by. The answer to this problem lies within the community, or the “we” approach rather than the “I” approach.

Health, Employment, Education + Housing


In part two of the event, Dr. Steven Barry discussed the underlying health factors contributing to the disproportionate effect on the African American community. For those who recover from COVID-19, it is important that education on lung function is utilized to avoid repeat experiences. Predisposition of health factors like pneumonia and asthma should not be taken lightly.

Dr. Barry says that how transgenerational epigenetic impacts marginalized populations must be considered. Offspring may have less than ideal lungs if parents have smoked or used drugs. Again, education is key and patients need information and a support system in non-emergency room settings.


Both pre-pandemic and during the crisis, the impact of COVID-19 on employment among the African American population has been great. Dr. Marvin DeJear, director of the Evelyn K. Davis Center, says there has been a spike in unemployment. We must all be intentional in combatting this issue, using actions and dollars to continue youth programs and create access to opportunity.


Panelists discussed how distance learning is impacting youth and their ability to get quality education. Life changed drastically for students and families. The opportunity for failure of students academically, socially and emotionally will have a devastating impact on the community.


Eric Burmeister, executive director of Polk County Housing Trust Fund (PCHTF), says housing underlies stability of the African American community and the community as a whole. PCHTF is involved in Undesign the Red Line.

Eric says the system is working exactly way it was designed to work, to systematically exclude African Americans from home ownership. When moratorium on eviction is up we will see a disproportionate number of people within the black community needing assistance in rent, through no fault of their own. We have systematically denied families the safety net and cushion that comes from stable housing.

Financial Inclusion

Deidre DeJear, of the Financial Empowerment Center, says finances impact every aspect of life. On top of that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, African Americans were twice as likely to get denied for loan. We need to connect them to mechanisms to strengthen personal resources. Small business owners are vulnerable and need to be able to continue to add value to the community.

Addressing Disparities + Divide

In part three of the event, speakers offered ways to address disparities, including:

  • Listening
  • Providing resources and dollars to youth internship programs
  • Creating databases to help organizations identify African American applicants throughout the state
  • Collaborating with schools and the community to develop inclusive instruction
  • Adopting successful practices and recommendations
  • Resolving existing challenges through teamwork and through crediting the African American community

See the complete webinar below:


You can count on The Partnership to continue to share accurate and fact-based updates as well. See more on COVID-19 here.

Greater Des Moines Partnership

The Greater Des Moines Partnership is the economic and community development organization that serves Greater Des Moines (DSM), Iowa. Together with 23 Affiliate Chambers of Commerce, more than 6,500 Regional Business Members and more than 400 Investors, The Partnership drives economic growth with one voice, one mission and as one region. Through innovation, strategic planning and global collaboration, The Partnership grows opportunity, helps create jobs and promotes DSM as the best place to build a business, a career and a future. Learn more at DSMpartnership.com.