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Nurse Ebone' McNeil fights COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice with equal force

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Nurse Ebonè McNeil has been in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic since its start in March. She added the responsibility of organizing a June 4 demonstration in response to the death of George Floyd.

In March, Ebonè McNeil was near the end of her shift as a nurse when she received the news: She was assigned to the first COVID-19 patient at the hospital.

In the time since, she's worked long nights helping on the hospital's COVID unit, caring for patients, worrying that she may contract the virus or that her patients may die from it.

Just as the pandemic seemed to be plateauing and things were starting to slow down for McNeil and her colleagues, the news of George Floyd's death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis rocked the nation's conscience. Protests grew in size and intensity around the country and a national conversation about racism, policing and injustice began once again.

But this time was different, for McNeil and so many who previously had stayed silent.

McNeil grew up in Tacoma, Washington, born to a black father and white mother. She attended nursing school at George Fox University and has remained in Newberg since her graduation in May 2019. She said racism is something she has always dealt with as a woman of color, but fear of judgment by her peers prevented her from speaking out.

"I struggled with racism, racial biases and prejudices growing up in Tacoma," McNeil said. "I felt it in everyday biases and the struggles of growing up in a place where such a large majority of the population isn't from a diverse background. My experience is different from others in that I've been lucky enough to avoid anything major or serious, but I want to use my voice to stand up for those who haven't been able to avoid that."

Emboldened by Floyd's death and the massive protests from coast to coast, McNeil linked up with fellow Newberg resident Webb Thomas — a white man — to organize a demonstration on June 4.

Hundreds of Newberg residents of varying backgrounds gathered at the Chehalem Cultural Center and listened to McNeil and others tell their stories of experiencing racism, discrimination or police brutality. Protestors marched downtown, signs in hand, demanding change on local, state and national levels. Many of those signs now sit in a makeshift shrine inside the cultural center.

The June 4 protest was McNeil's first involvement with any form of activism. Joining a movement that is gaining steam in big cities and small towns in the United States and around the world, she decided to stop hoping for change and start trying to inspire it.

"Instead of being afraid, I realized that this has been hurting me in small and large ways for my entire life," she said. "It's been hurting my close friends and family. In small towns like Newberg, it's so important to speak out and educate on issues like these, because if I don't, there might not be another place that people could hear it. I can't stay silent anymore."

McNeil was moved by the words she heard from speakers at the protest and encouraged by the willingness of Newberg's white residents to listen. According to the 2010 census, Newberg is 86% white and just 0.8% black, with the largest minority group in the city being those who identify as Hispanic/Latino (13.5%). Because of this lack of diversity compared with the rest of the state and country, McNeil said, the stories of minority residents in Newberg often go unheard and their concerns often fall by the wayside.

The protest functioned as an amplification of those voices, starting a dialogue that McNeil hopes will lead to tangible change. This was the first step, she said, in a larger effort to educate the public. Newberg City Manager Dan Weinheimer has since said that the city plans to discuss and address these issues at upcoming council meetings.

Not every voice in attendance at the protest agreed with calls for change, but McNeil said the vast majority of attendees were supportive.

"A handful of people showed up to the protest and had some negative things to say, but for the most part, those who weren't in minority groups came there to listen, to learn and do better," McNeil said. "I really hope that this message continues to spread in our community that it's our time to learn, to listen, to make a change in the ways we personally act and think. Those thoughts turn to words and those words turn to actions. We have to start small and expand in that way."

In between her busy schedule as a nurse, McNeil said she plans to organize more educational events and demonstrations in the future. The first on her docket is a "Juneteenth" celebration on June 19 at the cultural center, where she will teach interested parties about the African American tradition that celebrates the moment slaves were read the Emancipation Proclamation in the 1860s. Those interested can sign up for one of three, two-hour sessions hosted outdoors at the cultural center, with more information available at chehalemculturalcenter.org.

Stepping up and starting a dialogue hasn't been easy for McNeil, who still works night shifts at her hospital and remains on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether a second wave strains hospital staff or the virus slows down this summer, she will be at the ready.

The same goes for issues of racial injustice. Whether protests around the country dwindle or remain a constant force for change in the coming months, she will remain part of a movement that seeks to keep equity, race and institutional reform at the forefront of everyone's minds.

"The last few weeks have been very hard on me emotionally, more than anything in my life," McNeil said. "I'm good at hiding that, but internally I fear dealing with COVID, and I am dealing with the emotions of everything going on with George Floyd and the protests. I am trying to be strong for myself and for my co-workers and patients, but it's hard, and being able to channel that emotion into making a difference has been really important for me."


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