Michael P. McMillan, President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, loaded one of 1,500 packages that included food, toiletries, masks and helpful safety information. They were distributed to the people of East St. Louis and St. Clair County during a drive-thru giveaway at East St. Louis High School on April 17, 2020.
Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, feels a war started in early 2020.
“This virus has attacked us, and we have to do everything we can to fight back. It’s like we’re almost in a war and a war demands action that otherwise we wouldn’t have to do,” he said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the pandemic “has unequally affected racial and ethnic minority groups.” This not only puts them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, but the social determinants have disproportionately and negatively impacted how they live, learn, work, play and worship.
Stretching McMillan’s analogy further, he serves as the general of a unit tasked with protecting marginalized communities throughout the region. The Urban League’s headquarters in Jennings is one of three locations in the region. Its Ferguson location serves as a community empowerment center designed to help individuals improve their economic situations.
The Urban League has provided food, mortgage, rental, weatherization, utility assistance, child support, unemployment assistance and other services for people in need. That need increased exponentially with the coronavirus outbreak.
STL TV Production Manager André Holman and his wife Felicia Day-Holman volunteered to load cars with food during the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’ fourth free food distribution in as many weeks at the site of the former Jamestown Mall in North St. Louis County on Saturday, May 2.
“When COVID shut down all in-person activities, and we were all told to shelter in place and do as much as possible to stay healthy, all the issues our clients face every day were amplified to a level we had never seen before,” McMillan said.
“Some issues we were already addressing, but the situation was taken to a whole new level with this virus.”
Even so, McMillan said the Urban League rose to the challenge.
“We are truly honored to receive this award from the St. Louis American…this is something to motivate us going forward as opposed to us resting on our laurels.” – Michael McMillan, CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis
Through strategic partnerships with government and health organizations, the agency pivoted to provide mass scale food giveaways, toiletries and PPE distribution. It also offered testing and vaccination events throughout the region.
Recently, the organization unveiled a public education campaign focused on vaccine hesitancy in the African American community, partnering with the National Urban League, the National Action Network and CDC to promote the “ALL IN” campaign. The goal is to address concerns and inform communities of color about the coronavirus vaccine and encourage them to consider getting vaccinated.
According to Dr. Frederick Echols, interim health director of the St. Louis City Health Department, there has been a serious uptick in coronavirus cases in ZIP codes for south St. Louis and St. Louis County. The areas have the lowest rates of vaccinated individuals.
The spread of the Delta variant from the northern and southwestern parts of the state has added an additional sense of urgency to prevent further outbreaks. McMillan feels the Urban League is in a unique position to help spread the pro-vaccination message to its targeted clientele.
“We are one of many voices in the community that has a long track record of serving the community,” he said.
“As a result of that relationship and having 20 different facilities throughout the region, 350 staff members, thousands of volunteers and many community partners, we have the unique opportunity to get the word out about vaccine hesitancy. We must do all we can in our circles of influence to do as much as we can to get people to take the vaccine to get us back to where we were in the pre-pandemic days.”
Even after the pandemic is contained, McMillan confessed there will be an abnormal normal.
Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted.
For example, according to an April 2021 Pew Research Center study, some 61% of Hispanic Americans and 44% of Black Americans reported losing a job or experiencing wage loss due to the coronavirus outbreak. Just 38% of white adults had the same experience.
A line of St. Louis Public School teachers receive their vaccines on Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2021 at Vashon High School. This event was in partnership with The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
“We’ll still have a lot of work to do,” McMillan said speaking of the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19. “We will continue to work to keep people from becoming homeless; help people who can’t pay rent and landlords who have trouble paying their mortgages. We will continue offering educational opportunities, health and childcare services, job training and employment assistance because some of the jobs people lost don’t exist anymore.”
It is because of these COVID-related outreach efforts that the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis is the 2021 recipient of the St. Louis American Foundation Salute to Excellence “Health Advocacy Organization of the Year” award.
McMillan said he is humbled and encouraged by the recognition:
“We are truly honored to receive this award because of its history in our region. Anytime you receive an award, it’s a blessing because no one has to acknowledge you whatsoever. But, in my opinion, this is something to motivate us going forward as opposed to us resting on our laurels of the past.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.
The St. Louis American Foundation’s 21st Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards will be celebrated as a free virtual event at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 29. For additional details and registration, please visit givebutter.com/2021HealthSalute.