New research project to explore digital equity’s effect on health of refugee, immigrant communities


It has been said that nothing is permanent except change.

Consider the past 18 months. The emergence of SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as COVID-19, prompted global change, resulting in an exceptional era of transition and disruption. We collectively stepped into an environment characterized by uncertainty, and we are still adjusting to the nature and extent of the vast change in our lives.

Anecdotally, the alterations in the patterns of behavior in our personal lives illustrate the change. Remote work environments moved beyond an office perk, and many companies plan to retain remote work as a viable option for employees. School-aged children transitioned to in-home learning environments, posing new challenges and opportunities for working parents. Our gathering spaces moved from physical to virtual, and the richness of a shared meal or experience was delayed or cancelled. Life as we know it effectively moved into the home.

Yet, these changes are beyond personal and deeply environmental. The nature of our encounters with broader society throughout the pandemic have explicitly depended upon technology as a gateway to the world outside the home. Our academic institutions promoted virtual learning environments. Our faith communities provided at-home worship experiences. Our health care providers quickly implemented or escalated telehealth options.

In response to the amount of personal and environmental change, many are coping with sustained hopes of a return to normalcy. However, if current research by behavioral psychologists is to be considered, it takes approximately 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit.

It has been more than 580 days since a virus disrupted our patterns of behavior. 

New habits have not only formed but have been reinforced. Both personally and environmentally, we have changed.

I serve as the Della Lamb Community Services Executive Director in Kansas City, Missouri. Della Lamb traces its origins to 1897 when a small group of enterprising women formed a neighborhood association in response to the needs of working Italian mothers. They formed a daycare, and Della Lamb has been an active neighbor ever since, blessed by the presence and friendships of so many from the various ethnic communities across Kansas City.      

Today, our primary initiatives address early education, refugee resettlement, youth services, and social services. Through these programs, our hope is to honor our distinctive togetherness, welcoming and celebrating each member’s presence in our city and seeking to empower, encourage, and elevate members of the broader Della Lamb community.

As Della Lamb has navigated the change prompted by COVID-19, we have grown concerned regarding the pace of change and how it impacts our neighbors. Communities across Kansas City were not equally equipped to implement or embrace the mitigation strategies related to the risk of COVID-19 transmission.      

COVID-19 has emerged as an ultimate stress test on society’s digital infrastructure, and an accelerated and deepened reliance upon digital access and engagement poses significant risks on health outcomes for Kansas City’s marginalized residents. 

For example, telehealth options, vaccine registration, real-time information dissemination, and access to other basic services is predicated on an assumption of digital access and literacy. From our experience, this assumption results in limited accessibility for our ESL and elderly populations, particularly for those who are not actively engaged with community agencies like Della Lamb who assist in navigating the increasingly digital world.

The impact of digital access moves beyond a historic understanding of health outcomes, though. There is a growing awareness of the impact of social factors on health, and the identification and contextualization of the essential roots of the factors that result in disparities is of critical importance. 

For instance, as an early education provider, Della Lamb is focused on improving access to high-quality early education and increasing kindergarten readiness rates. Research has demonstrated that early literacy is highly connected to future health outcomes. Exploring similar parallels related to digital access and literacy is vitally important as society continues to embrace digital engagement.

For this reason, Della Lamb has launched a project in partnership with the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Health Forward Foundation to understand the impact of COVID-19 on Kansas City’s refugee and immigrant communities.

Our proposal aims to invite those impacted by COVID-19 into the decision-making and solution-discovering process. We hope to cultivate new leaders within the engaged communities, providing training and awareness to emerging community champions so that they may advocate for their communities. We will employ a community-based participatory action research approach to actively pursue, to understand, and to learn from the experiences of marginalized populations in Kansas City. 

Our first efforts will be in partnership with Congolese, Burmese, Mexican, and Guatemalan community members. Each community offers different insights and perspectives, and the experiences of each community will help guide our next steps for deeper relational investment with these and possibly other ethnic communities across Kansas City.

Due to the lingering impact of the COVID-19 delta variant, our project activities have been delayed, but we eagerly await the opportunity to gather with our refugee and immigrant neighbors and reflect upon their experience during COVID-19. How are you doing? How is your mental, emotional, and spiritual health? What were the hurdles you encountered? What new challenges emerged? How did other community members fare? How did you connect with service providers? How can we be better neighbors? These questions and others require listening and reflection.

Along with the rapid implementation of digital solutions, COVID-19 also resulted in the term “social distancing” entering our collective vernacular. This concept reflects the isolation of the past 18 months, and, when we’re disconnected, we fail to recognize the beauty of our diverse communities and the astonishing giftedness, wisdom, and resilience within each community. We must not let isolation and division become the lingering habits of COVID-19, for that is a crisis unto itself.

At Della Lamb, we believe that all people have something wonderful to contribute towards building a kinder Kansas City. Part of the joy of this exercise will be the simple act of gathering, for which we all have a new appreciation after a season of separation. As we continue to endure and move beyond COVID-19, let us embrace the critical opportunities to work in concert with our neighbors to develop community-driven strategies and solutions.