When I saw the snaking line of people standing in the rain and cold outside Elmhurst Hospital I found myself thinking, “the huddled masses yearning to be tested for COVID-19.” Situated in Queens, in one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation, Elmhurst Hospital is part of New York City’s public hospital network and serves a population similar to that of LaGuardia Community College, whose student body originates from 150 nations and speaks 98 languages. As a child in the contiguous neighborhood of Jackson Heights, I was whisked through Elmhurst Hospital’s emergency room and received immediate treatment for a broken wrist. When my mother suffered a stroke, the ambulance brought her to Elmhurst Hospital where she spent the last month of her life and where I was a daily visitor. Elmhurst Hospital doesn’t differentiate between rich or poor. However, given the stratified system of medical care in the United States, it disproportionately treats those with no medical insurance, such as the undocumented workforce that serves the higher-income residents of New York City and environs.
Having recently returned from the Eastern Sociological Society (ESS) annual meeting, my sociological mojo was operating at full throttle as I witnessed the line outside the hospital and thought about my own experiences at Elmhurst. At ESS, I had the opportunity to participate in an “author meets critics” panel discussing Anne Rochelle’s Struggling in the Land of Plenty . This prognostic title, which in her book refers to the lives of homeless families living in the Bay area, foreshadowed our current pandemic quagmire. Another panel featured Jose Itzigsohn and Karida Brown’s The Sociology of W.E.B DuBois, which I was reading as the crisis was unfolding.
After 15 years, I recently retired as president of Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Connecticut. My current work allows me to engage with the entire system of state colleges and universities, and from that vantage point the themes of inequity that were addressed in these conference sessions and that were playing out in the pandemic were all too real. As our entire college and university system shut down and literally overnight was transformed into a virtual learning enterprise, I feared the impact. Given the importance of physical placed-based learning for many of our first-generation college students, how would they fare in a totally online environment? How could they continue learning given a lack of laptops and broadband access? Would they be able to continue financially supporting themselves and family members as their employment dissipated? And how would they feed themselves, especially given that the campus food panty was no longer accessible?
Although this transformation is still very much a work in progress, it has been gratifying to see how many have come together. Students in Connecticut state colleges and universities have benefitted from the philanthropic community, which has rallied to meet their needs by providing laptops, internet access, gift cards for food, and other necessities. Our faculty has done valiant work in embracing a new pedagogy for online learning. Counseling staff are providing online academic support and a wide range of “wrap around” services such as career and mental health counseling. And our colleges and universities have provided personal protection equipment (PPE), ventilators, and sites for field hospitals throughout the state of Connecticut.
Yet I worry. When and how can we restart our land-based system? What will happen to students who are demoralized by yet another hindrance in realizing their life’s goals? And will we be seduced by the lower cost of delivering education online and as a result see further dismantling of the professoriate and our institutions?
In recent years, our discipline has been re-examining our past, coming to grips with the exclusionary and, at times, outright racist practices of our forbearers, and we have been earnest in reconstructing a public sociology that is truly life-enhancing. Given that we are now experiencing a Harold Garfinkel disruption experiment en masse, we have a golden opportunity to seize the moment and reconstruct a civic life that is more socially just.
At last year’s commencement at Norwalk Community College, I was thrilled to present Tracy K. Smith, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University and the 22nd United States Poet Laureate, with an honorary degree. During the ceremony, she read her majestic poem “Harbor,” which was commissioned for the grand opening of the Statue of Liberty Museum on Ellis Island. The closing line of the poem brings to mind those laboring and being cared for at Elmhurst Hospital. “Let’s erase the distance between skin and skin,” and finally solve, in the prophetic words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “the problem of the color line.”