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Finance lawyer shines light on COVID’s health disparities

Weekly calls have explored issues of ‘Facts and Faith’

A Richmond lawyer, doctor and pastor have come together to educate on health disparities in the Black community during COVID-19.

In March, Rudene Mercer Haynes – a finance lawyer at Hunton Andrews Kurth in Richmond – was introduced by a colleague to Robert Winn, the recently appointed director of VCU Massey Cancer Center.

“It occurred to me that I need to get [Winn] engaged with the Black faith community, especially considering what Massey does: innovative technology and treatmentments for cancer with a lot of focus on health disparities in the community,” Haynes said.

Soon after, Haynes introduced Winn to Rev. F. Todd Gray of Fifth Street Baptist Church to get these conversations started.

A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the commonwealth. As lockdown orders fell into place and uncertainty surrounding the virus continued to spread, Winn realized that timely and accurate information about COVID-19 was not getting out to area churches, particularly in the Black community.

Therefore, with the help of Haynes and Gray, the trio formed a partnership with Black clergy and started a series of conference calls named “Facts and Faith.”

Since early April, Winn, pastors and other individuals – such as broadcast journalist Clovia “Miss Community” Lawrence – come together for a conference call every Friday at 3 p.m. to discuss the latest numbers and facts on the coronavirus, as well as ways churches can keep their congregations safe.

“It wasn’t evident what our African American communities were supposed to do. People were frightened and confused,” Winn said in a press release. “There was a myth that African Americans couldn’t get COVID-19. We at Massey Cancer Center and VCU Health wanted to give them good, reliable information as we had it and bust the myths.”

Haynes said the weekly phone calls are also intended to reinstill trust between the Black community and health professionals.

“I know, being a member of the Black community, that people naturally have some reticence when it comes to medical research and clinical trials,” Haynes said.

An array of guests have been brought onto the calls to address coronavirus and other health-related concerns in all facets of the community. One week, a representative of the Board of Education came on to explain the protocols for safe voting measures during a pandemic. Other weeks, VCU health care professionals have come on to address different issues, such as heart disease or preventing the spread of COVID-19.

rudena-haynes-620x330“It has been a great venue to give [the Black community] accurate information about COVID-19, to talk about COVID-19 prevention and general health and wellness topics that should be a concern of all congregations.”

— Rudene Haynes

“It has been a great venue to give [the Black community] accurate information about COVID-19, to talk about COVID-19 prevention and general health and wellness topics that should be a concern of all congregations,” Haynes said.

After a few weeks of successful calls, Haynes, Winn and Gray discussed how they can reach a larger audience as they draw attention to the disproportionate toll of the coronavirus and other medical concerns in the African American community.

On Sept. 17, Haynes moderated a webinar titled “Facts, Faith and the Health Equity: Justice in Our Community” that discussed health disparities, racial inequities and the impacts on cancer research, treatment and outcomes in particular relation to the Black community.

Speakers included Winn and Gray, in addition to Vanessa Sheppard, associate director of Massey, and Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Charles City.

“We have inequities in so many sectors of our lives, and this one is focusing on health,” Haynes said

Haynes’ work with the “Facts and Faith” series is her self-designated “side hustle.” As an attorney, she is actively involved with diversity and inclusion affairs at Hunton; she also is a firm-wide hiring partner. And this summer, she helped facilitate the virtual summer associate program, during which Haynes conducted a “Diversity Hackathon” to discuss with aspiring lawyers how they think diversity can be improved within the legal community.

“Especially with so many people having a racial awakening… I think people are really interested in trying to understand how we can achieve equity,’ Haynes said.

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