Unmasking America



Sometimes, people needed a hand.

Sometimes, they extended it to others.

  • THEDescendant
  • THE Descendant

    Omar Neal | Tuskegee, Alabama

    Neal was born at the same Tuskegee hospital where the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study in which doctors told hundreds of Black men they were treating them for “bad blood.”

    Instead, for decades, 600 poor Black men were lied to and studied for the effects of untreated syphilis.

    Neal’s uncle was one of those men.

    After COVID-19 vaccines became widely accessible, Neal worked to combat historically rooted mistrust. He says the men in the study were denied treatment. But those who choose not to get vaccinated, he said, deny themselves treatment.

  • THEProtector
  • THE Protector

    Sgt. Darlene Foster | Shiprock, New Mexico

    Foster goes home each day, sprays herself down with disinfectant, showers, puts on a clean uniform and gets back out in the field — the routine for Foster and other officers of the Navajo Nation Police Department if they were exposed to COVID-19.

    Foster, who is Diné, has been with the Navajo Nation Police Department for 23 years and is one of five women at her station.

    “At times when we’re needed on our days off, we were out here. When another shift needed help, we were out there helping them,” Foster said. “During COVID we weren’t taking breaks. None of us worked from home — we were out here every day.”

  • THEReclaimer
  • THE Reclaimer

    Wayne Morgan | Stuttgart, Arkansas

    The numbers tell the story.

    Eighty dollars for a car that might break down at any moment.

    Up to 15 hours a week to drive to an addiction recovery program in North Little Rock, about 55 miles away.

    And $100 every week for gas.

    “Every day I choose to come here is a day that is saving my life, but it’s another day I’m going in the hole,” Morgan said of his mental health treatment program. “It’s another day that I’m not making a house payment. It’s another day that I’m not saving up for a car or paying off credit card debt.”

  • THEMother
  • THE Mother

    Brooklynn Sprinkles | Sarasota, Florida

    Sprinkles understands an old RV on a storage lot is not a safe place to raise three toddlers. She said the borrowed 1992 Coachmen Catalina, which belongs to a family friend, is their last resort.

    Sprinkles’ hours as a manager at a Dollar Tree dropped as the pandemic began. Her family was evicted from their four-bedroom home after they could not pay their rent. In May 2021, the Florida Department of Children and Families launched an investigation into the family’s living arrangement, calling the storage lot hazardous.

    Now, she says, she and her husband risk losing their kids.

    “Even if I find a house, where am I going to come up with the money to even get into a house?” she said. “I don’t have friends that I can say, ‘Oh, hey, you know, can I borrow, you know, $5,000?’ I can’t get a loan. I don’t have good enough credit.”

  • THENeighbor
  • THE Neighbor

    Richard Horn | Blackfeet Nation Reservation, Heart Butte, Montana

    Horn, an educator and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, took care of elders in Heart Butte on the reservation when it was hit hard by COVID-19.

    The Blackfeet are a communal tribe. Horn feared that the elders were unsupported – spiritually, physically and financially.

    Each of the over 17,000 members was only eligible to receive $500 in stimulus funds from the tribal government.

    Horn used federal stimulus money to buy food and other necessities for elders in the Heart Butte community. He stopped by to see how they were doing. Sometimes he was their only visitor.

    “Some of these elders have since passed, and I think about these elders all the time,” Horn said.

  • THEDoctor
  • THE Doctor

    George Thomas | Lowndes County, Alabama

    Thomas is the only physician in Lowndes County, which sprawls across more than 700 square miles in Alabama’s rural Black Belt. About 10,000 people live there — many with little access to health care.

    Thomas said that 30% to 40% of his patients have no insurance. More than 1 in 4 residents in the county live below the poverty line. Transportation is lacking. Unemployment is high. Inequities in internet access are the norm.

    “It’s not just endemic in Lowndes County, it’s all the counties, because all of them are facing pretty much the same issues — and basically it’s poverty,” Thomas said. “With poverty, you don’t have access to certain things that you need to survive or thrive.”

  • THEChef
  • THE Chef

    Cathy "MamaCat" Daniels | St. Louis, Missouri

    Spaghetti sauce simmers on the stove as volunteers, working out of a church basement, prepare meals for people who are homeless. At the height of COVID-19, the need doubled to more than 200 meals every week.

    Daniels runs PotBangerz — a group that transformed a run-down house to shelter homeless women, built a community garden in the backyard and plans to teach the women to cook.

    “Each one reach one, so we can teach one,” she said. “That’s my thing.”

  • THEElder
  • THE Elder

    Abdi Mumin | Buffalo, New York

    Surrounded by the third-richest ZIP code in Buffalo, Somali-Bantu elders in Orchard Park rake dirt for their crops in the morning mist. They are preparing the soil for the upcoming harvest, when they can sell African crops to fellow immigrants from around the world who have made this East Coast city their new home.

    Mumin, like many of the refugees who have helped transform Buffalo and the nation, often has to work more than one job to make a living.

    He volunteers at Providence Farm Collective, a nonprofit organization, where he can grow and sell crops for the Somali community and other Buffalo residents before heading to his full-time factory job.

    As an elder, people came to him for advice and assistance during the pandemic.

    “He is the staunch supporter of (the) Somali-Bantu community organization,” said Hamadi Ali, a Somali refugee and marketing manager at the collective.

  • THEFighter
  • THE Fighter

    Lark Catoe-Emerson | Washington, D.C.

    Struggle is all Catoe-Emerson knows. She and her sons, Quentin and Xavier, were homeless and lived in shelters for several years.

    She’s protested for housing rights and organized events to help poor families like hers. But the pandemic proved to be too much for all her roles: mother, daughter and advocate.

    She lost her job. Her mother was infected with COVID-19 in the hospital and later died. She still faces eviction. Her debt has grown to $5,000 since she last paid rent in February, and she may become homeless again.

    She hopes her activism will help others and, in return, help her, too.

  • THECaregiver
  • THE Caregiver

    Brooke Skidmore | New Glarus, Wisconsin

    Once the pandemic hit, the Growing Tree, a child care center that Skidmore opened in 2013, had to close multiple rooms in a facility that had once housed up to 100 children.

    “We have a mortgage, we have bills to pay and we can’t make those bills when we’re not operating full,” said Skidmore, who owns the center. “We were already operating on thin margins prior to COVID. We already had a lack of teachers, and now the pandemic has just exacerbated those issues.”

    Child care teachers are migrating to industries that pay higher salaries. The center is open, but at less than half of its pre-pandemic capacity, with a waitlist.

    “Every day I get parents calling me,” Skidmore said. “I had one like tearing up, because she’s like, ‘How can I work? I can’t work, nobody will take my baby.’”

    “It’s a child care crisis.”

  • THEFixer
  • THE Fixer

    Thomas Gonzales | Nogales, Arizona

    Gonzales owned Sahuarita Bikes on Morley Avenue, nestled between the other small tiendas in this city on the U.S.-Mexico border. He builds and repairs bikes. But streets once crowded with customers now are choked with weeds, and that’s something he can’t fix.

    The 2020 border shutdown led to one loss after another. His shop closed. The bank recalled his loans. His father died of COVID-19.

    He hopes to open a shop again on the border. But for now, he will keep pedaling.

  • THEBreadwinner
  • THE Breadwinner

    Priscilla Espino Infante | Wasco, California

    Espino-Infante was only 16 when she came to California as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. The single mother of five now has temporary legal protection — a U visa — as a victim of domestic abuse.

    “I used to be afraid because I was undocumented. I didn’t know much about trauma,” Espino-Infante said. “When it came to the first hit was when I said no, I have to care for my children, for the girls I had. First I’m a mom, then I’m a woman.”

    Espino-Infante is the crew leader for 25 farm workers — including her own parents — overseeing operations on a 1,500-acre grape farm. She worked to keep everyone healthy and safe during the pandemic.

    “It was difficult, because before we were used to the fact that every Friday I would make them a little meal, and we couldn’t do it,” she said in Spanish. “It was no longer possible to give each other rides to work — each one had to be separated and wearing masks. That was the hardest part.”

    Some farm workers stayed home out of fear, she said. Espino-Infante tries to keep the atmosphere upbeat for employees who do show up and encourages others to return to the fields.

  • THEPatient
  • THE Patient

    Frankie "Dean" Nelson | Electra, Texas

    Oil fields, farms and ranches mark this town of 2,791 people, where Nelson has lived most of his life. He feels fortunate to still have his life.

    On Dec. 23, 2020, Nelson, his wife and his youngest daughter tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly three weeks later, he was intubated and transferred to an Amarillo hospital.

    He was on a ventilator for three weeks and spent two months in the hospital. He still uses an oxygen tank and goes to physical therapy back home in Electra three times a week.

    “I’m not a hundred percent back where I need to be yet, but I’ve made so much progress,” Nelson said. “I think, well, I can’t do this, but look at where you were. You weren’t even able to roll over in the bed.”

    “I’ve come a long way, and I keep trying to remind myself of that whenever I get a little discouraged.”

  • THETrailblazer
  • THE Trailblazer

    Arthur Aston | Collingswood, New Jersey

    Aston shuts the front door of his home and, using his braces, makes his way down the steps to his car. He buckles himself in and makes the 10-minute drive to Build Jake’s Place.

    Aston is the executive director of the organization, which builds inclusive playgrounds in New Jersey. Each playground has cushioned turf to accommodate wheelchair use, sections marked with Braille, areas for children with sensory processing disorders and adapted merry-go-rounds.

    Aston, who also uses a wheelchair, said people with disabilities are not given as much consideration. Because of the pandemic, he says, restaurants expanded or developed outdoor spaces that cater to nondisabled patrons rather than those of limited mobility.

    “I think this pandemic, again, has really taught me just that I have to keep myself out there and keep advocating, keep raising awareness and educating people about disabilities,” Aston said.

  • THEDriver
  • THE Driver

    Fabian Carrasco | Storm Lake, Iowa

    Fabian Carrasco’s construction work plunged during the pandemic. The price of materials has gone up, pay has gone down and his business, which once supported 10 employees, has faltered. It lost more than $17,000 in 2020.

    Still, he tries to help his workers as much as he can, including driving them to jobs.

    “I pick them up from their house. I pay for their lunch,” Carrasco said in Spanish. “I try to support them as much as possible so that when they are with me, they don’t spend anything, that what they earn with me is for their family, for their expenses.”

    He now runs a fertilizer-recycling business that employs more than 20 people.

Carnegie Corporation
Knight Foundation
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication