CLEVELAND — As the Delta variant tears through communities across the country, there’s even more of a focus on vaccinations.
Data from the Ohio Department of Health shows that vaccination rates remain low in Black communities and other communities of color in Ohio.
A Cleveland organization called Guardians CLE (not the Cleveland Guardians), made up of aunts, uncles, grandmas, and neighborhood mainstays is taking a grassroots approach to making sure their neighborhoods are protected.
The group launched a campaign last month aimed at promoting the facts around the COVID-19 vaccine. It features billboards, TV commercials, and other signage with those everyday community members talking about their personal experience with getting the vaccine and encouraging people in their communities to get vaccinated as well.
Marilyn Burns is heavily featured in the campaign. She has been a community activist in Cleveland for the last four decades.
She has spent nearly half of that time fighting specifically for the people who live in Woodhill Homes, earning the title of Queen of Woodhill Homes. But she said most people just call her Ms. Marilyn.
“For Woodhill, I came there and I saw a lot of disparities that truly, truly broke my heart and I didn't understand it,” said Burns. “So I met a mentor and I explained to him with tears in my eyes and he said, ‘Marilyn, go get educated, find out what the people need.’”
Over the last year and a half, Burns has been focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic. She created a “Thousand Mask Initiative” in which she worked to source 1,000 masks for her neighborhood through donations. After just a month, Burns received over 3,000 masks donated by community organizations throughout the City of Cleveland.
Now she’s working to address vaccine hesitancy in communities of color by using her influence and personal experience.
“I prayed on it. I talked to people. I did a lot of research being a researcher myself. So it took me time. But once I did this, I was truly happy. It felt like weight lifted off of my shoulders,” said Burns of her decision to get vaccinated.
People can see her testimony on TV, billboards, and RTA shelters across the city.
“It helps to kind of move the campaign forward when they see someone that has a familiar face,” said Kim Fields, a community leader in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood and a member of Guardians CLE.
Fields has been a community leader in Buckeye-Woodhill for the last 20 years.
She said she joined the campaign out of concern for her community, and knowing that trust and familiarity are the keys to solving the vaccine puzzle.
“We're not just saying that, ‘Oh, we expect you to do this.’ We've actually done it too. And you have an opportunity to see that we survived getting vaccinated, and so you will as well,” said Fields. “Because we live, work, play and pray here, we know everything that goes on in the neighborhood. So I wanted to be a voice for the community to say, ‘Hey, that's not what we need. We need this.’”
So far, both women say they’ve been successful in changing some people’s minds.
“I have people approach me that I know that says, you know what? Your commercials are so authentic and so sincere. You have convinced me to go have the vaccine,” said Burns.
But their work is far from over.
“The campaign doesn't stop until the virus is gone for me, and so I'm going to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated, encourage you to wear your masks and just be sensible about things, stay healthy,” said Fields. “I think the Guardians are just the start of things. I would like to see this be expanded to far much more than just vaccinations. There are so many needs in the community and we can be guardians of a variety of ways. And I would love to see that expand.”
Guardians CLE is looking for more people to join its campaign. More information can be found here.
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