Celebrating the Importance of Black Leaders in our Local Community

Feb 18, 2021

Black History Month is a time to acknowledge and celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of the Black community, both locally and nationally. In recognition, FCCF Chief’s Community Impact Officer Mendi Blue-Paca sat down for a conversation with Fairfield County native and Black community leader Lamond Daniels, Chief of Community Services for the City of Norwalk. Daniels is at the center of the city’s COVID response and oversees many of the city’s programs and departments, including the health department, human relations and fair rent, early childhood and youth services, and more.

Blue-Paca: What does Black History Month mean to you? How does it tie into how you see your role as a Black community leader in Norwalk?

Daniels: When I thought about today, it brought me back to being raised by a strong Black woman, my grandmother. I reflected on the things that she taught me – character, integrity, dignity – and how that relates to me in this role as a Black male. I thought about the many stories she taught me around, “Be true to yourself, be proud of who you are, let your yeah be yeah and your nay be nay.”

So as we reflect on this month, it just makes me think of our ancestors who paved the way for me. I’m a firm believer that I’m here because of the sacrifices and pathways that African-Americans paved for people like me to be in these positions. For me, Black History Month is a month of gratitude and reflection on where we’ve come from. And I’m proud to be in the position I hold, because it gives me an opportunity to make an impact, not just on Black people, but for all people.

Blue-Paca: How do you carry those lessons forward into your work, and how you are taking action for the next generation?

Daniels: I am a proud social worker, and I’m always going to talk about the world view from a social work perspective. That’s my base, and I think it’s important. There are a lot of terms we’ve used in social work, for example, “meeting people where they are.” But what does that really mean?

I think it’s honoring people’s stories and experiences. I’m always amazed and marvel that when you bring a group of young people in the room, they know what the challenges are. They just need some help with identifying resources, and with mentoring or coaching.

So when I think about Norwalk’s youth services program and all the young men and women we are impacting – oftentimes, children of color – I’m mindful of how I show up to be that example and role model. When appropriate, I let them know that, “You may see me as Mr. Daniels, but guess what, guys, I have a story too.”

Being able to share my own experiences and stories and watching their eyes say, “Wow, if Mr. Daniels can do it, I think I can do it too,” is really powerful. It’s key to be open and honest and courageous when you’re talking to folks. People know when you’re real and authentic. It doesn’t mean we always agree, or that they always support the decisions I have to make. But when they know you’re coming from a good place, people respect you.

Blue-Paca: Can you talk a little bit about your story?

Daniels: Being raised by my grandmother most certainly shaped who I am. Often people will say I have an “old soul” because I was raised by her. I love hearing stories of what she accomplished, how she persevered and dealt with challenges and discrimination. After all the experiences she went through, she still had an amazing smile and laugh. My grandmother is no longer here anymore, but she most certainly lives inside of me. I take that wherever I go.

Growing up in Norwalk was a good experience, but I also had challenges. I often didn’t see people that looked like me, that understood my experience and my story as a person of color living in Fairfield County. It was very common for me to be one of the few persons of color in my class. That’s a whole ‘nother story, but it shaped me into who I’ve become.

Blue-Paca: You are now in a position to influence many of the systems and structures that impact people. We’re also in a time of racial reckoning, and a pandemic that has created tremendous economic uncertainty. How are you thinking about all of this and creating impact despite the challenges?

Daniels: You may be familiar with this quote by Winston Churchill. He said, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing…what a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared for that which could have been their finest hour.”

I really do believe our country, our state and our communities are at one of our most finest hours. For me, it’s really about “What do we do now?” No longer can we deny what we saw on TV. We can’t ignore it, we can’t avoid it. We can’t turn our backs because we’ve all been impacted in some way, shape or form.

This pandemic is killing our people. Every day, I get briefed on the virus count, but I also get briefed on who’s died in this city. And it is true that, disproportionately, people of color are dying more and are infected more. So what do we do? How do we grapple with this?

For me, this is where my grandmother comes in, with her teaching that we’ve got to speak the truth. We’ve got to have conversations around this issue. I’m really excited to be in this position because I have a mayor that supports this work of talking about race. We have to talk about our communities of color, who have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised and put it right on the table.

In this role as an African-American male, I was concerned as to whether I can I talk about this in government. And I have been so overwhelmed to find that yes, I can. It’s celebrated and embraced, and the mayor has been very supportive.

So, how am I thinking about the challenges of today? The pandemic has only exacerbated what many of us already knew. It’s put it front and center, and on a global stage. We have countries all over the world saying “Black lives matter.” That’s big. We have generations coming together, young and old, saying “Enough is enough. America, Connecticut, Fairfield County, Norwalk – we have to do better.”

So for me, I think this is the time for the voice of the people. We are in a new era, and I’m encouraging people to speak loud and clear. And even in my role, hold me accountable. I don’t have all the answers. Tell me. Let’s have a conversation, bring people to the table and really talk about the issue so we can come up with strategies and solutions that make all lives better.

It’s also key that we are not afraid to say, “I also want to make sure our communities of color are being treated fairly as well.” Because historically, our government has not been kind to people that look like me. Being able to say that unapologetically – not as a critique, but as a fact – and then moving the conversation forward, is essential.

Blue-Paca: With COVID, we’ve seen tremendous disparities in who’s dying, who’s being infected, and now who’s being vaccinated. In your of role leading the health department in Norwalk, how are you thinking about eliminating some of those inequities?

Daniels: This is a whole new department. I am Norwalk’s first Chief of Community services. When I was appointed in this position, I spoke to the community to say, “We cannot do this alone.” That is my mantra. Government most certainly has a role, but I’ve also challenged our community to help us.

I’m told that in Norwalk, we may be the first mayor-led COVID 19 vaccination task force. Having worked throughout Fairfield County and others states across the country, that’s big. It’s significant that we have called upon community stakeholders, trusted leaders and institutions to really help us think through how to best address these inequities because we need everyone at the table.

We meet biweekly to talk about just that: who are we missing? Who’s not at the table, why are these communities not involved?

Being African-American, I’ve learned over the years that you can have the right message, but it can be the wrong messenger. We can’t forget that who the messenger is plays a key role. It’s kind of what we were talking about earlier: when I bring all of me to the table, I am a college instructor, but I’m also a Black man that was raised by a Black grandma.

Bringing all of me to the table is important when I show up to understand the sensitivities and nuances for communities of color that are impacted by COVID, and don’t trust the system. I have to acknowledge that I work for the system, but how I can be honest?

How we do that is to bring everyone to the table to say, “We need your help.” So we have local faith leaders helping us promote why it’s important to get tested, and now we’re rolling information about the vaccine strategy and why it’s important.

I’m so excited to see our Vice-president and other leaders promoting the vaccine. We have our own local “vaccine celebrities” we are engaging to spread the word on social media. Some key people will get pictures in their seats with the nurse getting ready to inoculate them to help say, “We got vaccine. You should too.”

We’re working on it, but it’s not easy. There are still reservations. My wife is in the healthcare field, and just got vaccinated at the hospital. I plan to as well. But some people are saying, “Okay, Lamond, we get it, you’re doing it. But I’m still not getting it.” We have to respect and honor that, too.

However, what we are working to do is to compete against the myths that are out there, the inaccuracy of information. The worldwide web is funneling information every millisecond. And so in Norwalk, we’re really working to get information out that’s accurate and understandable.

And of course, we’ve got to talk about language. Norwalk has a huge Spanish population and Haitian-Creole population. We need to be sensitive to linguistic challenges, to having the right messengers talk about these issues, and to meeting them where they are.

People may say, “I’m not ready yet.” And I’m saying, “That’s okay, but how can we get your ready?” Having those conversations with our community stakeholders is important.

Blue-Paca: Are there particular folks you are engaging around that question of building more reasonable and truthful narratives? Is there anything you think the state or federal government can help with?

Daniels: In Norwalk, we’re working with a lot of groups. We’re working with sororities and fraternities, and looking at faith groups. Norwalk also has a pretty diverse immigrant population, and we’re literally walking around in communities – with all distancing measures in place – to meet people and ask them how to best get the information out. Are there people we should be talking to? Are there places we should go? The bodegas, the grocery store, the community centers?

I don’t know all the places where people come together, and getting that information always changes everything. I think the big takeaway is not to assume I have all the answers. As a Black male, I have my Black experience, but my experience may not be another person’s Black experience.

So, it’s a struggle every day, and we are encouraging the State to make some investments around communication efforts in local communities. We’ve got to get to the people.

In Norwalk, which I’m very excited about, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation was able to allocate some funding to give people stipends to go out and about in communities where people are uncertain and share information about the vaccine. You know, these people are from the community, they may live on your same street, and they are providing information that’s understandable and easy to understand. The community messengers are at our food distribution programs and are literally walking in neighborhoods, talking about the vaccine and COVID-19.

When we were doing COVID testing work with one of our large immigrant community groups, we set up a dedicated site specifically for that community at the Children’s Museum in Norwalk. We were able to get over 300 Spanish-speaking community members tested. That’s big. But we were only successful because we had the right people delivering the right message.

Blue-Paca: Coming back full circle, who is your Black History Month hero? Is there a person when you look at their experience or work and say, “They really had an impact”?

Daniels: I still read a lot of writings from Martin Luther King Jr. He was a trailblazer. Yes, we celebrate his work on a holiday, but when you really start studying his work, he was definitely ahead of his time. I read his writings and try to adopt some of his philosophy.

And in my personal life, there are a lot of people. Mr. Anderson, my mentor in school, was one of the really good people who have been so pivotal and made me who I am today. I most certainly stand on the shoulders of my grandma, but there’s so many other people.

Blue-Paca: If you had to pick one thing you feel has been a real accomplishment since you’ve been with the City of Norwalk, what would that be?

Daniels: One of the things folks have shared as being important to them is that this department has become a coordinating entity to bring services together. Norwalk has a wealth of resources, but previously folks didn’t have time to bring people together. This department under my leadership has been very critical in helping the City as a whole think through how to deploy our resources, how to build capacity and make sure those who are most vulnerable don’t fall through the cracks. We play a very key role in those areas.

Blue-Paca: How can people contact you?

Daniels: I encourage people to email me at ldaniels@norwalkct.org.

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