By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence will coordinate a coronavirus vaccine awareness campaign, with the hope of better reaching communities of color in the township.

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” the MFEE wrote in an announcement of its effort. “It is vital to ensure that Black and brown folk in Montclair have access to information that will help them make informed decisions about the COVID vaccines.”

It cited a study from UnidosUS, the NAACP and COVID Collaborative that found just 14% of Black Americans say they trust the safety of a new COVID-19 vaccine.

The MFEE said the “long legacy of American racism, manifested in the 20th century’s eugenics programs and the Tuskegee experiment, undoubtedly influences” that distrust. 

“Many of our Latinx neighbors experience similar distrust as well as language barriers that complicate access to the vaccine,” the MFEE wrote.

The MFEE will hire three part-time community health workers to take the lead on its project. They’ll create a “Health Equity Street Team,” made up of a diverse group of residents with broad connections to Black and brown Montclairians, the fund wrote. The health workers will create an online and print media campaign with culturally sensitive and clear information about coronavirus safety and vaccines, will host a series of interactive virtual town halls with Black and brown health professionals and community members, and host an outdoor event aimed at connecting attendees to health resources to support vulnerable populations. They’ll work with local partners to provide assistance with registration and transportation for those who want to get vaccinated.

The fund’s concerns about trust in vaccines echo those of several groups and leaders in town, and complement other efforts over the last several months. 

Montclair Councilman David Cummings in February attended a video conference with Gov. Phil Murphy to discuss the rollout of vaccinations to communities of color. He said at the time Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver’s suggestion to “take the vaccines to the people utilizing houses of worship, community centers and senior center locations” was spot-on.

The Montclair NAACP, the YMCA of Montclair and Mayor Sean Spiller have all recently hosted discussions intended to improve education about and trust in coronavirus vaccines. Essex County in February also announced a partnership with Black and brown clergy members to encourage their communities to get vaccinated. 

The MFEE, with funding from the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey — a regional grantee of the N.J. Department of Health — said its campaign will be “shaped by and designed for Black and brown community members.” The MFEE plans to serve as a “connector for trusted groups, leaders and messengers to develop engaging materials and to creatively design a multipronged communication strategy,” it said.

The MFEE plans to work with the township, faith leaders, the NAACP and Montclair State University. Dr. Renee Baskerville — an activist, former Fourth Ward councilwoman and former school board member — will serve as a community outreach and medical adviser. Baskerville, in a recent guest column for Montclair Local, outlined a multi-pronged proposal for helping get vaccines to communities of color. She advocated for prioritizing Black, brown and Indigenous residents for vaccines, highlighting the role of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman, in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and appointing “captains” in buildings, residential areas and wards to promote best practices.

“We believe that Dr. Baskerville’s long record of advocacy in Montclair and her innovative ways for connecting to Montclairians will be instrumental in this work,” the MFEE wrote.

Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the MFEE, said the education-focused group is undertaking the project because “the health and safety of all of our students, teachers and families is fundamental to a thriving educational system.” And she said the MFEE had strong ties to the community and to organizations that would support the work.