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kottke.org posts about Rachael DeCruz

One Woman’s Mission to Get Vaccines to Her Rural Alabama Town

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2021

The Panola Project is a short film by Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy Levine that follows the efforts of local convenience store owner Dorothy Oliver to get the people in her small Alabama community vaccinated against Covid-19. A trusted member of her community, Oliver teams up with county commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson to call & go door-to-door, talking with people one-on-one, cajoling and telling personal stories of loss to get folks signed up for a mobile vaccination clinic.

In the film, Oliver and Russ-Jackson arrange for a hospital to set up a pop-up site in Panola, but the site will only be established if they get at least forty people to sign up to take the vaccine. We follow Oliver as she goes door to door, talking people into signing up, lightly cajoling them about their fears and concerns. When I asked her how she does it, her answer was disarmingly simple: “I just be nice to them,” she said. “I don’t go at them saying, ‘You gotta do that.’” DeCruz, too, was struck by the way Oliver and Jackson talked to people who were on the fence about the vaccine, an issue more often discussed with stridency of various types. “There’s this very warm and kind of loving and caring way that Dorothy and Ms. Jackson approached those conversations, even when people aren’t in agreement. And it wasn’t done in a way that’s, like, ‘I know better than you.’ “

Oliver’s charm with the skeptics is remarkable, but so is her determination to bring the vaccine to her underserved town. Most of the women and men Oliver talked to leaped at the opportunity to sign up for the vaccine. On vaccine day, they rolled down their car windows to thank her. “We appreciate y’all giving it to us, because a lot of people don’t really know where to go to take these vaccines,” one woman tells her. Vaccine hesitancy in Black communities has been harped on in the media, but those conversations can gloss over questions of availability. Levine told me that they were struck by how many people had put off vaccination for logistical rather than ideological reasons. In Panola, he says, they regularly heard people say, “I want the shot. How do I get this? I don’t have a car; how am I going to get forty miles to the closest hospital and back?”

The result? In a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, 94% of adults in Panola have been vaccinated, due in part to Oliver’s and Russ-Jackson’s efforts.