As told to Tony Rehagen
As told to Tony Rehagen
Tanya Washington Hicks has seen the disparate impacts of the coronavirus first-hand. It will forever change the way she helps educate future generations of lawyers.
I WAS SITTING AT MY COMPUTER in room 203 on the second floor of the law school at 85 Park Place when the weight of the current crisis hit me.
It was the middle of March, and I had just finished recording a lecture for my civil procedure students. Like schools all over the country, Georgia State announced that classes were moving online to promote social distancing during the early stages of the pandemic. The situation was unprecedented — we were all still trying to figure out how to best serve our students. Later that day, I was supposed to “attend” a Facebook Live broadcast of a dear friend’s funeral. But rather than run home to watch it around my children, I thought it might be better to stay in my office and say goodbye to Rushia alone.
Rushia Stephens was a family friend and the wife of my colleague, Georgia State law professor Cornell Stephens. She was a singer and beloved music teacher in Atlanta and DeKalb County schools, and a central figure in her church and our community. She was a mother of four, a grandmother of three. She was 65 years old, active and healthy. On March 12, she had assumed that spring allergies had given her a sinus infection and a fever. Her doctor told her to get tested for the coronavirus, but at the hospital she was denied a test because her symptoms weren’t severe enough. She went home, developed a cough and trouble breathing. She went to an emergency room, where she was finally tested. By the time the results came back positive for COVID-19, she was already gone.
As I watched her funeral, I felt such loss. It was all so sudden and so tragic. I was crying, and the tears expressed my sadness and frustration. Frustration that I was unable to mourn in person, alongside her family and friends. Frustration as I realized that this type of virtual funeral was going to repeat itself over and over and over again all over the country for the foreseeable future. And all I could do was sit at my desk, sob and click the “love” and “sad” buttons on Facebook. The numbers of deaths reported on the news were no longer just numbers to me. I now knew one of the people represented in those numbers. She was someone I loved and admired, and her unexpected passing brought the deadly nature of the coronavirus into sharp focus.
In the days that followed, more frustration emerged as data revealed that the virus was disproportionately impacting the African American community. Across the nation, African Americans accounted for more than half of all COVID-19 deaths — nearly 60 percent — despite black Americans constituting only 13.4 percent of the total population. The disparity was worse here in Georgia, where one Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that more than 80 percent of people who were hospitalized with the disease were African American.
“I realized that this type of virtual funeral was going to repeat itself over and over and over again all over the country for the foreseeable future. And all I could do was sit at my desk, sob and click the ‘love’ and ‘sad’ buttons on Facebook.”
The coronavirus is affecting everyone, but the disease is operating as a crucible, surfacing societal fault lines — class, race, workers’ rights, food insecurity and access to housing and health care. The virus didn’t create inequity, but it is exposing the disparities. The pattern is clear: Poor people, working-class folks and people who were already vulnerable medically, economically, socially and politically are experiencing this crisis in a way that is very different from the rest of society. The frontline workers, who risk exposure every day, are predominantly people of color and working-class people of all races and ethnicities.
As one of my family members observed, “We may all be in the same ocean, but we are not all in the same boat.”
Right now, I’m worried that people are not adhering to social distancing, wearing masks and practicing the other behaviors the medical community and public health officials recommend. We’re relying on controlling policies as an indication that the risk of infection is not as bad as it actually is. I realize that I am privileged. I have a place to shelter, the means to maintain that shelter and a job that enables me to work from home. But many people can’t work from home, and if they don’t work, they don’t eat. Policies have to be sensitive to the economic realities that inform working-class people’s decision making and choices. Some people are more afraid of not being able to work so they can eat than they are of being exposed to a deadly virus. That’s a horrible choice for anyone to have to make.
One of the reasons I was drawn to a career in law was because it can improve the lives of people and communities. I spent a semester in South Africa working for a non-governmental organization during President Nelson Mandela’s first term in office and my third year of law school, and that allowed me to appreciate the power of the law and the responsibility of using it to promote positive change. After graduating law school, I discovered that while I enjoyed practicing, I was more drawn to teaching. After all, my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were all educators.
My interest in social justice deepened. While at Harvard Law School pursuing a master of law degree, I was determined to inspire others to use the law as a means of righting societal wrongs by becoming a law professor. When weighing offers for my first teaching job, I chose Georgia State because it has a public service mission where I would be able to shape students’ minds, careers and lives. And 17 years later, that has been my experience.
It’s been interesting, as we move classes online, to observe that the process brings many of the aforementioned disparities and realities to the fore. Some students don’t have reliable internet access and aren’t able to access all the lectures and materials as readily as others. Of my 160 spring-semester students, some had to homeschool their children or balance working from home. Some were not able to work or had to care for a loved one who had fallen ill. Their worlds have changed, and the expectations I had in the classroom needed to change accordingly. It’s not about lowering expectations, but I can’t expect a student to do the same things under these dramatically different circumstances.
I made adjustments to my classes in full view of the realities my students were experiencing. I gave them all the materials they needed for their final exams — practice exams with grading rubrics, taped lectures, class PowerPoint slides and weekly online group sessions. Their open-book test was scheduled for any four hours during the entire exam period, and they had time to learn the material while they were taking the final. This exam format was designed to ensure that, despite the changes to the class, they would still learn what they need to know for the bar exam.
Students who are now going out into the world and beginning to practice law will have to adjust to many new conditions. I am so proud of all of them for being able to pivot in a pandemic and complete their classes. I am especially proud of those who are committing themselves to advocacy that protects vulnerable people and communities suffering in this pandemic.
Meanwhile, I was at home, making sure my 17-year-old did his online studies and homeschooling my 4-year-old. My mother was a kindergarten teacher, so I’ve enlisted her help. But she recently had a heart attack. She’s recovered, and back at home in the Washington, D.C., area. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken a flight immediately to be by her side, but I couldn’t visit her in the hospital. I couldn’t drive to D.C. without stopping to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t stay in a hotel. I couldn’t stay with my 81-year-old dad. Even the options we have for responding to non-COVID-19 crises are affected by COVID-19.
On the other side of this pandemic, we cannot return to business as usual and ignore all of the structures, systems, policies and laws that make certain people and communities much more vulnerable than others. We are responsible for the laws and policies we implement. The consequences are so great. There’s no room for error when you’re talking about lives. As a teacher and scholar, I know this experience will change the way I teach, what I teach and how I teach my students to use the law to make the world a better place.
Photos by Steven Thackston