Our Humanity: Quadriplegic activist and filmmaker launches educational COVID-19 vaccine program

Crystal Emery is a 59-year-old Black filmmaker and activist. She has been all over the world. She lived in Germany and Paris. She has pictures with Whoopi Goldberg and has an honorary University of Connecticut doctorate.

Emery is the founder of URU, the Right to Be, Inc., a non-profit production company that “tackles social issues via film, theater, publishing, educational media and other arts-based initiatives.”

She’s also quadriplegic and on a ventilator.

So when the COVID-19 vaccine began its foray into the public, Emery, a New Haven resident, was eager to get her hands on it. Her life very well could have depended on it.

But that first distribution came and went, and Emery didn’t qualify. She wasn’t a first responder, and she didn’t reach the age limit.

“The first rollout was for people older than 75, but Black and brown people, particularly Black people, don’t live to be 75,” Emery said. “So, what does that say?”

She’s right. According to a 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy for a Black person is just 72 years.

According to data released by the state Department of Public Health, more than half of all doses of COVID-19 vaccine given in Connecticut before Feb. 3 were given to white people. There are multiple obstacles communities of color face in acquiring the vaccine, from accessibility to transportation, to availability to leave work, to age requirements that don’t take life expectancy into account.

“I’m not 60 yet, so I wasn’t even close to getting a spot despite the fact that I have all these issues,” Emery said.

One day she waited on hold with the state for two hours waiting to register for the vaccine. She says the person on the phone told her to leave her phone number and they would call her back. She didn’t hear back for 10 days.

When she did hear back, there was a vaccine appointment open, but it was far away in a suburb. If she didn’t have help, there’d be no way for her to get there.

Uriah Monk has known Crystal since he was in elementary school. He’s 25 now and he’s attending Savannah College of Art and Design online to get his masters in motion media design.

Because he works as Crystal’s aid, he qualifies as a home healthcare worker and was able to get the vaccine — even though Crystal, the person he assists, could not.

“I find it quite absurd that the people who take care of her, her caregivers and helpmates [are able to get the vaccine], but yet the person we are caring for is not, who is more vulnerable than any of us for a number of reasons,” Monk said.

“So the fact that she's excluded from that equation rate and won’t even be considered is quite disturbing and kind of shows the imbalance of what’s going on within the healthcare system and the COVID vaccine.”

Monk also said that with so many people coming in and out of the house, from physical therapists to caregivers and home helpers — and having to replace those people as with new helpers as time goes on — Emery is exposed daily. She can’t wear a mask because she wears a ventilator.

On the day she spoke with Hearst in late February, Emery was finally able to get the vaccine. But even before that, her attention was turned toward other people in her community still fighting to get vaccinated.

“Imagine the people that are eligible, specifically older people, that don’t have an email, that don’t know how to really work a computer, and that don’t have a child or grandchild to help them work one,” Emery said.

That idea is what created Our Humanity, a program within URU that specifically works to educate communities about COVID-19 and how to get the vaccine.

Right now, Our Humanity is working with people over the phone, taking them through the step-by-step process to get an appointment in the state system.

Then there’s the issue of misinformation and education about what the vaccine actually is.

“The other part is there are a lot of hesitant Black and Brown people, and they have good reason to be hesitant. What we have to show them now is what happened with Tuskeegee, what happened with Henrietta Lacks, what happened with Hispanic sterilization - there are better guards at the table (now),” Emery said.

“They are going to make sure that none of those atrocities happen.”

With those aching atrocities of the past, Emery said she understands why Black and Brown people are hesitant to get the vaccine, but she also wants people to understand the importance of herd immunity, and that without community participation, immunity is not possible.

“The deadliest disease in America is not COVID-19, it’s racism. The COVID-19 virus only amplified what was already, what was already sitting there rotting.”

Emery has spent her life creating narratives in film. She uses that skill set to change the narrative of the present.

Our Humanity holds town halls where communities can bring their questions about COVID-19 and the vaccine straight to doctors who can, hopefully, answer them. There’s also an online toolkit full of documents and videos that explain the virus and the vaccine.

“We don’t want to get back to the old normal, because the old normal never did anything for Black, Brown and Indigenous people. So, I’m not trying to go back to the old normal. What I want to go to is a new paradise, a paradise filled with love and respect,” Emery said.

sarajane.sullivan@hearstmediact.com, @bysarajane on Twitter