Lithonia, Clarkston and DeKalb County Elected Officials Speak Out About Their Communities

Published by Imani Benjamin on

Local Elected Officials Speak Out About Their Communities

Editor’s Note: This story is part of our COVID-19 (the ‘rona) series. Click to learn more about our local ‘rona coverage.

COVID-19 has drastically altered the way we live. Although the virus is different from the 1918 flu, we’re still experiencing a shut down that the world has only experienced during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Our lives have been, for the most part, disrupted. 

Georgia has around 27,000 COVID-19 cases, a number that continues to rise. Meanwhile there are many local communities struggling to combat the virus and working to keep their residents safe.  We sat down with three local elected representatives from the cities of Clarkston and Lithonia, as well as DeKalb county.

Amelia Inman via Facebook

Amelia Inman, Lithonia City Councilwoman, has been doing what she can to keep her constituents safe during the quarantine. Inman, a graduate of Valdosta State University and longtime resident of Lithonia, was elected into office in January 2018, and, at 26, was one of the youngest members of Lithonia’s City Council.

YT Bell via Facebook

Clarkston City Councilwoman Yterenickia “YT” Bell, a three-time graduate of Georgia State University with degrees in Criminal Justice and Political Science, Social Work and Public Administration, has been working hard with the city council to disseminate information to her diverse community. 

Almost 60,000 refugees have passed through Clarkston since the 1980s. About 50% of its residents are foreign-born or refugees. Serving since 2017, Bell has worked to help her incredibly diverse community with economic mobility and particularly the vulnerable groups.

Diijon Dacosta via Facebook

Diijon Dacosta, a graduate of Kennesaw State University, is a member of the DeKalb county school board. Elected in 2018, the District 6 board member strives to better the district through innovation and change. 

Local communities and governments can be the last line of defense. While COVID-19 has made it difficult for people to go out and meet face to face, Inman hasn’t let that get in her way. 

She, along with other members of the city council, has been calling and talking with constituents, ensuring they have the resources they need to stay healthy in this time. “Outside of that, what we did is create a call list for all of our residents… So what I did was take the most recent spreadsheet that I had and divided it out of amongst us so that we can reach out to our citizens to let them know, hey, we’re concerned about you guys. We want to make sure that you’re okay,” said Inman.

In Clarkston city, part of keeping coronavirus related hysteria at bay has included informing residents on how coronavirus can be spread.

“One of the things has definitely been brought to our attention is the fact that there’s so much inaccurate information around Coronavirus, did it already exist, how can you contract it [etc],” said Bell.

Bell and the city council have taken the time to educate their residents on how the virus spreads: 

  • By person to person transition,
  • Respiratory droplets or 
  • Coming into contact with items contaminated with coronavirus ( not by airborne pathogens, as some of her constituents believed. 

The DeKalb county school district has been shut down until the end of the school year. With its virtual learning program, launched two years ago, students have been able to keep up with their end of year studies. The district has a “… a one to one Chromebook issued out”  to all  middle and high school students in DeKalb.

According to Dacosta about “… 75% of our scholars in middle school and high school were able to log in and take care of their academics.” While there are elementary students who have not had access to chromebooks, about “… 58% of our elementary scholars have been able to complete work, either online or from packets handed out from their teachers before the shelter-in order took place.

The Elderly

COVID-19 has a much more deadly effect on the elderly. Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes have a higher risk of developing serious complications.  

Inman, using her personal funds, has been able to help those older individuals with a higher risk of infection. 

Seniors in Lithonia are one of Inman’s priorities. They are an active, independent group that have not shown to be seriously affected by coronavirus at the moment. There are nonprofits that “… have donated food and it’s been very open for them to come by and pick up food… So we’ve been trying to be very productive as far as getting the resources that are needed out.”

However, she’s made the extra effort to ensure that they have the resources they need. Supplying them with masks, gloves and hand sanitizers – items that have been in high demand.

In Clarkston, the elderly population has been kept up to date through apps like NextDoor and virtual council meetings. Bell said the city has taken the time to “[post] actual physical letters to all the businesses in the community, but also making it where all this stuff is on the website. What time we’re closing, how long we’re going to be closed, and our city manager has a walkout route to express what our next steps are as a city and the things we’re doing in order to keep them safe.”

There are plenty of older employees in the DeKalb county school district from teachers to bus drivers. The district has been actively communicating with those older employees, said Dacosta, to let them know “… if they’re sick to make sure that they notified their supervisors, if they are on one of those essential workers that come in to help distribute food, to check their temperatures, to make sure that your temperature is not too high.”

They are among the government employees covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCR), which is an expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FFCRA, released April 1, provides support for individuals whose workplace is closed due to quarantine, are taking care of a child (someone who is 17 or under), or an individual who is sick because of COVID-19.

The Shelter-in-Place order 

Georgia’s statewide shelter-in-place order went into place April 2 and urged residents to stay indoors and limit social interaction as much as possible. It expired on April 30, although there are cities and counties slower to open than the state. 

Most of the DeKalb county’s shelter-in-place order went into effect March 23. They “… started that back in March, as soon as we found out about the numbers [such as] how many people were dying,” said Inman.

The executive order divided DeKalb’s county’s workforce into frontline, remote and auxiliary employees and shut down all but essential businesses, with 9 p.m. curfews. When city council meetings and work sessions were held virtually, the council also utilized their courts and police department to help residents understand the seriousness and need for the shelter-in-place order.

In Clarkston, the shelter-in-place advises people to stay in. But while the shelter-in-place order advises people to stay in, there are still essential businesses that need to stay open and essential workers to keep those businesses running. 

Bell has been working with her community to educate them on what to do if they have essential workers in the home. It’s been crucial for Bell to help residents understand that the virus spreads through close contact, whether that’s from someone or something contaminated with the virus. 

Residents who have essential workers in the home should “… make sure that they take out all of the clothing they can before they enter the home and then they put it in a separate bag, tie it up  and so that’s washed separately from everybody else” or  “… the first thing they make their essential worker do is go take a shower before they touch, talk or speak to anybody else.”

One thing these three officials struggled with during the now expired shelter-in-place was making sure their constituents stayed in doors. The order (Executive order 04.02.20) advised individuals to stay indoors unless engaging in essential activities like grocery shopping or getting medication and avoid being in close quarters with other people. There were still many people gathering in groups of 10 or more or forgoing the use of masks. Quarantine is hard. Staying inside when you don’t want to sucks. But social distancing, even after the shelter-in-place is over, protects everyone in the long run.

Supporting families and students during the shelter in place

According to Inman, Lithonia’s city council hasn’t been working on their own to provide support, turning to nonprofit organizations. “I know that there is one nonprofit that… partner[s] with Wal-Mart. What happens is that we’re able to take food that Wal-Mart gives and let that be a blessing that someone may need [it].” 

Lithonia is a city with a majority senior population that rely on their families for support. Even so, there are members of the community who take it upon themselves to be of service and support their neighbors. 

Like Lithonia, YT and Clarkston have relied on nonprofit support. About 50% of Clarkston’s residents are foreign born. They rely on local nonprofits like the Clarkston Community Center for access to essential services and legal help. It’s through these organizations that Bell and the city council reach out. 

Some of their residents may not go directly to the city government for the help they need. “The government is not one that they are prone to trust and believe in. [For] a lot of them, the reason that they had to flee from whatever persecution or whatever incident was because of the government,” said Bell. What they will do, is go to the nonprofits that provide them with their essential services. These organizations have become the go-between that advise the city council on what their residents need. 

While the school district has been trying to keep the vulnerable safe, they’re also supporting their students. The district has enacted a plan, which may continue into the summer, that provides DeKalb county students with food. 

This system recently moved to a modified system. Deliveries will be made to locations that include “… twenty-one sites, twenty-one schools, 85 bus routes and also nine different recreational centers,” said Dacosta. 

 Medical

The U.S. has been facing a shortage crisis of medical supplies like masks, gloves and ventilators that has local and federal government scrambling for supplies. While Georgia hasn’t had the same high numbers as New York and California, counties like Fulton and DeKalb have some of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in the state.  

In Lithonia, there are no medical facilities within the city limits. They haven’t had to dip into medical resources. But they have had independent organizations like “… churches that are doing their own independent drives for medical resources. We also are able to just give them the resources that they need.” They have been proactive in sharing hotline numbers and directing those experiencing symptoms to the correct facilities.

Nonprofits continue to come in clutch in Clarkston, where there’s a lack of testing facilities. The city council and local nonprofits have been working to get residents tested by holding drives to test for the coronavirus.  

By holding these drives, they’ve been able to provide two services for their residents: The tests take about three days to return and in that time, “… [we] gave them food… We don’t want you to spread even further by having to leave your home because you don’t have food or resources there… So, in addition to providing free tests and food to make sure you still quarantine yourself before getting your test results back.” said Bell. 

While the school district can’t help much beyond contributing masks and hand sanitizer or encouraging their students to stay home, they have been working with the state government. They’ve been offering their space as testing facilities for the CDC and GA’s Department of Health. While they can’t openly tell the public about what locations are being used, they have been “working with the CDC and the Department of Health to lobby some of our space so they can do drives-in [those] locations,” said Dacosta.

What can we do

We all have a part to play, and as younger people our role might be even more important. COVID-19 has very literally turned our lives upside-down. 

Dacosta, Inman and Bell all agree on the influence that youth have on their communities. We listen to and learn from one another. 

Dacosta gives the students in his district “… the opportunity and platform to go ahead and motivate others about the importance of this stay at home order.” 

And Bell has encouraged the young people in her city to share their experiences. Sometimes it’s easier to listen to people our own age.

In the confusion and uncertainty that this crisis has brought, it’s easy to forget that we have a voice. We’re innovative, creative storytellers who know how to communicate. That might be through word of mouth or through apps like TikTok, but we contribute to the awareness of this virus, who it affects and how we can stay safe.

With Georgia’s shelter-in-place order expired, we’re stepping back into the world a little shaky on our feet. But with our communities and government working together, we can continue to spread more awareness and flatten COVID-19’s curve.

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Imani Benjamin

Imani Benjamin

Imani Benjamin-Wharton is a graduate from Georgia State University with a degree in English. She’s an aspiring novelist hoping to write the next great American novel. In her free time, she learns the secrets of survival from her favorite horror movies.

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