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Detroit Activist Brings His Community Together During The Pandemic Through Facebook


Justin Onwenu is 23 years old. He lives and works in Detroit.

JUSTIN ONWENU: Every generation has faced crises. For older generations, it was the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. But I think for my generation, we've dealt with 9/11, the Iraq War, hurricanes and school shootings, a pandemic now. And we've also dealt with just the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement during our very formative years.

FADEL: Onwenu is a community organizer. And those generationally defining events he just mentioned - one of them changed his career path. He was on track to become a doctor three years ago, going to college in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit.

ONWENU: I saw that people still had mold in their homes. I went to certain neighborhoods where people still had damage. In particular, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods were still reeling from the storm long after it passed.

FADEL: Justin Onwenu doesn't want anyone to get left behind. Since he relocated to Detroit, he's connected with other like-minded young people, including Bridget Quinn and Lauren Schandevel. And a few months ago, when their state went into lockdown, the three friends moved quickly to connect people who were struggling even before the pandemic hit. They created and began moderating the Metro Detroit COVID-19 Support group on Facebook.

ONWENU: I think COVID - it's been hard. You know, a lot of folks hunkering down, isolated because of COVID. On a family and neighborhood level, it's definitely been hard for people. We're dealing with issues of poverty, issues around Internet access, issues around pollution, job security and job safety. We're also seeing just the impact that being a front-line worker has on your health. There are a lot of people who are working jobs that aren't particularly safe or secure, and they're having to work multiple jobs or - and riding public transportation to get to those jobs.


ONWENU: We got the Facebook group started, and some of the posts that we've seen - I mean, at the beginning of the pandemic, people were asking questions like, where can I get food? You know, people asked questions about toilet paper and what stores were stocked. There are a lot of parents who had children out of school - they still had to go to work; they didn't know what to do at the time - requesting trustworthy child care. We also had people requesting water delivery. The city of Detroit has dealt with water shut-offs for a long time, where people have been shut off for water.

As the pandemic continued on, we've seen people post questions about how to apply for unemployment. There have been a lot of questions and concerns about stimulus checks. And in some cases, people, you know, were able to get connected to job opportunities. So I think the space has just really been opened for people to make of it what they will.


ONWENU: Starting this Facebook group with friends has made me realize we are a lot more capable of building solidarity across differences, whether they be racial, geographic or otherwise, than I think we give ourselves credit for. I think politics is important. I think becoming civically engaged is important. But I do think that human connection and that empathy - sometimes we just forget it. This pandemic has been a reminder that building those relationships and building that empathy, building that solidarity is possible if we work hard for it.


FADEL: That's Justin Onwenu, a young community activist in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.