Courage Under COVID-19

Second-generation public servant learning and leading on the fly

ALBANY, Ga. — Politics and public service aren’t just about responsibility for Commissioner Demetrius Young. They’re also about family legacy.

Young, the Ward 6 Commissioner for the City of Albany, is the son of two civic-minded parents. His late mother, Mary Young-Cummings, was the first Black city commissioner in Albany, as well as a civil rights attorney. 

Young won in a runoff in December, and surely expected to have a grace period to familiarize himself with his constituents’ needs and concerns.

Then COVID-19 happened.

It hit Albany especially hard, and at one point, the city with a population of 153,000 people had the third-highest death per capita rate due to COVID-19 in the world, according to the New York Times.

The Makin’ A Difference show reached out to Commissioner Young about the challenges of being a leader in the midst of the pandemic:

Makin’ A Difference: There are various reports about how Albany, Ga., became one of the hotspots for COVID-19 cases. Can you tell us about some of the vectors based on the information you have been presented?

Commissioner Young: There were two events that took place here in Albany that were associated with the initial spread of the coronavirus in our city. There was a funeral on Saturday, February 29th, and a second homegoing service on the following Saturday. While we are aware that there was a marathon attended by thousands of international and national runners, currently, none of the infections have been traced back to the marathon. That was the information we received from health officials and the epidemiologist who came to Albany. What the officials have told us is that the majority of the infections were associated with the two funerals, and were traced back to individuals who had attended those two funerals. The original individual who was infected was from Atlanta and was actually the first death associated with the coronavirus here in Georgia. He attended the first funeral, and the virus spread through those individuals to the second funeral. It even spread into our court system via a juror who had attended the funeral. I understand that my community is feeling some type of way, and rightly so, because many people are seeking to place blame rather than help people and find solutions. To date, we do not have any evidence that ties the infections back to the marathon.

MAD: What are your immediate concerns about the Governor’s attempts to “re-open” Georgia?

Young: My immediate concern about Governor Brian Kemp’s “reopening” of Georgia is that he did not give local officials the power to do what is necessary to protect their citizens based on their local situation with COVID-19. His reasoning was very conflicted and contradictory. Initially, he said that he was giving power to local officials to do what is necessary for their community. Later, he said that he wanted uniformity regarding a statewide “reopening” — even as the virus begin to proliferate through the state. This was especially frustrating given the data that we were seeing here in Albany, and even more puzzling because it conflicted with the guidelines coming from the Trump administration as well. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that the businesses he sought to open up were businesses where it would be most difficult to adhere to the social distancing recommendations. It would also be challenging for business owners to protect their workers and customers. We also know that these are businesses that are frequented by African-Americans, and African-Americans have been especially hit hard. We have suffered the lion’s share of the deaths from the virus. This is why so many in our community from celebrities, down to the man on the street wondered if the Governor was placing us in harm’s way intentionally. As of right now, we know cases are on the rise in Georgia. As more testing is being made available, what I think you will see is a more accurate picture of how widespread the infections are throughout Georgia. We know it is not safe here in Albany to reopen businesses, and thankfully, for a large majority of the restaurants, barbershops and hair salons, they have chosen not to open.

MAD: As a “freshman” in politics, there really hasn’t been a “grace period” for you in terms of being in office. Everything is happening really fast, especially with the pandemic. How are you dealing with everything?

Young: Things are happening really fast, so I haven’t had a chance to assess how I’m doing. Right now I’m just doing, which is my general mindset. It was already enough to learn the ins and outs of being a public official. Many say it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose your first six months. Thankfully, politics has been my love for a long time — even before I really knew what politics was. Right now, I am in my element, just learning everyday. I am trying to better the conditions for my city, my ward, and Black folks in general. There are a lot of things that I had planned to do that have now taken a backseat, but in this “new normal,” we will all have to adjust. I do think there is an opportunity for us to rebuild struggling pockets of our communities through this pandemic. All of the conditions and the systemic ills that we have faced have been laid bare and have proved to be deadly for impoverished communities. If we in government do not recognize now that we have to do more to change our conditions, then we can’t say that’s what we want. In many ways, the situation here in Albany is so dire that I don’t have time for people who want to simply stand in the way because of ideology or playing politics. People are dying. Government must come to the aid of people who have signed a social contract with their lives.

MAD: You’re a second-generation public servant. What does your family legacy and your parents’ service mean to you personally and how you service your constituents?

Young: My family’s legacy in politics and public service is obviously something that I’m proud of. What I’m more thankful for is the way my parents left the simple legacy of treating people with dignity, fairness and love. That’s what our legacy truly is about. It’s something that I don’t take for granted and definitely don’t want to squander. I think for all of us who are blessed with a legacy of good parents, we should do our best to be good people. We should pass on what they did so that our children and generations after them will have a legacy that they can benefit from in terms of how they are treated and thought of in the community and society at-large.

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