When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Pastor Dwight Minnieweather wasn’t sure what to think – but he knew he wanted to help.
“I deal with a lot of people from many walks of life,” said Minnieweather, “so I thought that [COVID-19] was an issue that I could take up amongst our people and try to make a movement of getting a vaccine. I thought the most important thing was educating our community.”
Minnieweather is the founder and leader of Straightway Services, a non-profit focused on empowering Black, African American and African immigrant youth around the Portland area, and building their sense of independence and entrepreneurship. He was inspired to create the organization after traveling to New Orleans in 2005 to help after Hurricane Katrina.
After that trip, Minnieweather returned to Portland and launched opportunities for youth including caring for city parks and volunteering with the Portland Water Bureau. Minnieweather also started a regular Saturday night basketball program to keep kids and teens away from gang violence.
Every Friday morning for the last two years, Minnieweather and his team – plus several teenage volunteers – gather at Delta Park in North Portland to hand out supplies such as nonperishable food, tents, sleeping bags and cold-weather gear to people experiencing houselessness.
Minnieweather and his team are a Community-Based Organization (CBO) that receives funding from Oregon Health Authority to bring COVID-19 resources and vaccines to the houseless and Black, African American and African immigrant communities in Portland.
“Business is suffering, people are suffering,” said Latoya West, a Straightway Services staff member who helps coordinate events. “But with Straightway Services, we do have the opportunity to help people that have COVID-19 with resources that they need, to help with rent, utilities, food, emergencies.”
A big challenge has been helping people get vaccinated.
Across the country, vaccination rates for this population have lagged behind other groups. In Oregon, 69% of the Black, African American and African Immigrant population has completed a vaccine series. That disparity is caused by many factors, including lack of access, systemic barriers to health care and institutional racism, which drives mistrust in government institutions.
Minniweather also recognizes that misinformation, myths and conspiracy theories spread quickly, and he wants to be a source of credible and trustworthy information for the people around him. He hears rumors about COVID-19 vaccines get repeated from person to person, with no one bothering to confirm the facts. He does his best to dispel them.
“With the African American community, when you’re trying to build a momentum of trust, consistency is what [helps],” he said.
Straightway Services works with other CBOs in Portland to put on vaccine events. One of those CBOs is Congregation Neveh Shalom, with which Minnieweather has hosted vaccine events at Delta Park and at Straightway Service’s office space in North Portland. He’s also worked with HeavenBound Church as well as Just Men In Recovery, a group that supports Black, African American and African Immigrant men recovering from substance addiction. Straightway Services has hosted two to three events per month, and sometimes more, each time vaccinating anywhere between 10 and 30 people.
At every one of Straightway Services’ vaccine events, Minnieweather and his band, The Light, fill the air with upbeat soul, gospel and R&B tunes. Other staff and volunteers serve a variety of dishes including fried fish, clam chowder, hamburgers and more. They hand out masks, household goods and non-perishable food, also providing information about COVID-19 and vaccines. Everyone is welcome to get some food and supplies and enjoy the music – no one is forced to get a vaccine, and questions are answered readily.
“That’s Straightway Services biggest goal,” said Latoya West, to “get as many people vaccinated as we can, keep them up to date with boosters, information, regular PPE, hot food, clothing, all the things that we can provide.”