Rebeccah Bennett was ‘spiritual center,’ strategist in St. Louis’ COVID-19 response

By: - December 31, 2021 6:00 am

Rebeccah Bennett dances at the three-day Living Well Summit in July in St. Louis, which was part of the outreach and wellness campaign PrepareSTL. Bennett served as the managing director of PrepareSTL from March 2020 until August 2021. (Photo courtesy of PrepareSTL.)

It was never a question. 

As the St. Louis region began to close schools and issue stay-home orders due to the pandemic, Rebeccah Bennett knew that the most vulnerable — the Black community, the unhoused and immigrant populations — would bear the brunt of this deadly virus. 

And Bennett, founder of the consulting group Emerging Wisdom, feared that local public health departments weren’t going to be capable of addressing these disparities.

“They were under siege,” Bennett said, speaking of the health departments’ need to focus on contract tracing and coordinate testing. “They had a huge task, and they’ve been serially underfunded.” 

Just before the stay-at-home orders went into effect on March 23, Bennett received calls from leaders in the Black community, who were all thinking the same thing. 

Within days, the group made up mostly of Black women had a plan to launch two grassroots initiatives.

The first, PrepareSTL, would be an outreach and communications campaign where hundreds of volunteer canvassers would be on the ground in Black and immigrant neighborhoods to answer questions about COVID-19 and listen to the community members’ concerns.  

And the second was the Regional Response Team, a coordinating committee among social-service, philanthropic and public organizations that focuses on ensuring racial equity in the region’s COVID response.

Within a few weeks, hundreds of PrepareSTL volunteers were putting up flyers in grocery stores and gas stations. They were receiving training from doctors so they could have informed conversations with their neighbors. They were passing out masks and personal protection equipment kits.

In tandem, the RRT was working on strategies for food distribution, eviction prevention and streamlining phone hotlines for crisis response. They were bringing infectious disease doctors to school leaders and homeless shelters to help them with their mitigation plans, among many other things.

The two initiatives combined became what organizers called one of the most wide-reaching efforts nationwide to address racial disparities in COVID response.

Their success relied on the fact that they were all volunteers, the group concluded, working outside the authority of any one institution or government.

On one of the RRT’s daily phone calls, Jason Purnell, who was on sabbatical as the director of Washington University’s Health Equity Works at the time, remembers someone jokingly compared the team to Olivia Pope and Associates from the TV series “Scandal.”  

“We were like fixers,” said Purnell, who is now vice president of community health improvement of BJC Health. “Not worrying about, ‘do we have a five-point plan?’ We were able to get things done in just a remarkable way for St. Louis.” 

Months later, statistics would confirm their need for their quick response — that Black residents in the region were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized than other groups in July 2020. That disparity was a result of long-existing inequities in the health care system, and in society in general, experts agreed. 

Bennett, along with several others, called the group a “dream team.”

“Somehow this constellation of extraordinary people got together and forged an unshakable bond,” she said, “all centered on the well being of the most endangered among us.”

How it happened 

Dr. L.J. Punch hands out masks and hand sanitizer on June 19, 2020 in St. Louis. As part of the PrepareSTL education campaign, Punch trained volunteer canvassers about COVID-19 safety and facilitated the mass production of kits with masks and safety information. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent)

One of the first calls Bennett received on March 19 was from Bethany Johnson-Javois, who was the CEO of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network at the time (now head of the Deaconess Foundation.) 

“We just stepped into it and said, ‘We’re going to do this because we have to,’” Johnson-Javois said. “Everyone else will fumble and stumble. The money will be deployed and spent in ways that don’t impact the need. So it’s got to be us.” 

Bennett agreed. Six years before, Johnson-Javois had worked with Bennett during another crisis they were both called to serve — the Ferguson uprising.

Johnson-Javois had been the managing director of the Ferguson Commission in 2015, a governor-appointed committee charged with identifying the underlying root causes that led to community unrest in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. 

“There are relationships that I forged through the Ferguson uprising with community organizers, who taught me another way to activate quickly, without authorization,” Johnson-Javois said. 

That unflinching muscle to organize and act that they honed through Ferguson was the same muscle they used again to create the initiatives, said Steve Parish, who has been a community health worker and organizer for more than 30 years. 

Parish was also on the initial group phone call with the two women.

“We have rampant indifference to Black and Brown people’s lives, from the federal government all the way to local government,” said Parish, who brought in the St. Louis Community Health Worker Coalition into the organizing efforts. “So we knew there wasn’t really going to be a lot of will to focus on saving Black folks’ lives during the pandemic.”

That same night of the initial group call, Purnell talked to Bennett about helping to coordinate actions among the city and county health departments. 

“The early conversation was, ‘Rebeccah, I need you to help us get situated from a strategy standpoint,’” Purnell said. “It became much more than just that.”

Bennett took what she heard from all of the conversations and developed strategies for both the initiatives. But those plans would change constantly and in real time, as they learned what worked and what didn’t, Purnell said. 

They acted first and worried about funding later, Bennett said. They received funding for their activities from a wide range of groups, including from the Missouri Foundation for Health and Regional Business Council. The Regional Health Commission continues to serve as PrepareSTL’s backbone sponsor, organizational home, and a principal funder. Organizations also gave in-kind by “loaning” their staff members. 

Soon, dozens of people were working on the initiatives, and Bennett was a leader in both spaces.

Bennett, who served as managing director of PrepareSTL until August 2021 and was on the steering committee of the RRT, said that the reason their “village” worked so well was because the structure was “flat.” Institution administrators were on the same call with canvassers, making decisions every day. Oftentimes these administrators would be sitting on the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force and then listening to the debrief with canvassers as soon as they came back from the street canvass that same night.

More than 180 PrepareSTL canvassers distributed masks in 70 street and mobile canvasses, reaching 683 community hot spots, a study of the campaign by Saint Louis University reported. Additionally, 31 of the street team canvassers were either foreign born or served immigrant and refugee communities. 

And many social-service organizations, philanthropic groups and elected officials came to rely on the RRT’s guidance and coordination of response efforts during a very chaotic time, Bennett said.

“I think who leads matters,” Bennett said, “and this particular response was led largely, though not exclusively, by Black women.”

A calm center

Rebeccah Bennett, right, poses with PrepareSTL volunteers during a community distribution event for early childcare workers in 2020 in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of PrepareSTL.)

Serena Muhammad, deputy director of the St. Louis Mental Health Board, said the group wouldn’t have gotten through it all without Bennett as the “center point.” Muhammad agreed to serve as the managing director of the RRT because when Bennett asks someone to serve, they don’t say “no,” she said.

“She inspires that level of commitment because she’s real, she’s honest,” Muhammad said. “She’s not going to ask you to do something that’s frivolous or fruitless.” 

A big focus of the initiatives was to support both physical health and mental health – and not only for the community members but among themselves. The team met every day about these initiatives, but those meetings were also a place where they found joy and support, said Johnson-Javois. 

“All of a sudden, my whole year in pandemic was surrounded by a ton of Black women getting stuff done,” she said. 

All of them – from the canvassers to the health administrators – were trying to protect their own families and deal with their own trauma.  

“It gave us our well and our respite to draw from,” she said, “to be able to care for and be the caretakers for our community.” 

The initiatives still continue but several of the founding members have passed the torch to other leaders. However, Purnell said that they still check in with each other. They know they have found a family they can rely on, and Bennett was a big part of creating that. 

“Rebeccah was a spiritual center that kept us grounded within the way that only she can,” Purnell said. “I think everybody on that team would tell you that Rebeccah was a touchstone for them.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.