By Casey Murray | The Sacramento Observer, Report for America

Aron King, left, and Dr. Michael Lucien, right, discuss how important it is for Blacks to get vaccinated. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

The Creative Exchange, an event designed to help Black artists with their professional development, returned Saturday after being put on hold due to the pandemic.

Hosted by California Black Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jay King, the event featured sessions on film and music, vendors and dance performances in nearby and a keynote speech from KBLA Talk Radio’s Tavis Smiley.

However, the conference was about more than just art this year. As COVID-19 case numbers slowly tick up in Sacramento, the event also hoped to address persistently low rates of vaccination among the Black community. 

“​​Today’s event is happening for a few reasons,” King said in his opening remarks. “Number one, to bring light to false information that has circulated throughout many communities concerning the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The COVID-19 vaccine has been a successful tool nationwide for decreasing cases of the virus as well as deaths. Of people who have died from the virus since March 1, 2021, 88% were not fully vaccinated, according to county data.

That’s important because only about 54% of Black people in Sacramento have even been partially vaccinated.

Journalist and commentator Tavis Smiley addresses guests at the Creative Exchange held in Oak Park. Smiley urged Blacks to get vaccinated and to take care of their health. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

King and several doctors and nurses who spoke at the event pointed to warranted mistrust in medical institutions as one reason for the trend.

“You really have to start by acknowledging the generational distrust and trauma that has been on the Black community,” said Aron King, a nurse who has served as assistant nurse manager at the University of California, Davis. “For the longest time, no one really cared about the community and the failure of the health systems to these areas.”

Multiple people brought up times in which medical institutions abused people of color – from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to Henrietta Lacks.

But that distrust is having a real impact on the number of Black people dying from the virus.

Black people in Sacramento have the county’s second highest COVID death rate, with native Hawaiians or other Pacific islanders dying at the highest rate. The rate at which Black people are dying from the virus in the county is about 11% higher than that of White people.

Events like the Creative Exchange are trying to close that gap. UC Davis Health helped put on the event where people could get free vaccinations or tests.

With a few hours left in the event, UC Davis staff said they had administered about 10 doses of the vaccine. But even if such events don’t result in everyone getting vaccinated, they could be helpful in opening a dialogue. That’s what Jay King said he hoped for.

“My hope is that, as the day goes and people come, that you all have conversations and not just with the people you know, but with new people. Ask questions,” he said. “Get as much information as you can.”

California Black Chamber of Commerce CEO Jay King welcomes attendees to the Creative Exchange. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Tira Scott, who has not been vaccinated, did just that. She went to Creative Exchange to learn more about earning money as a songwriter, but also ended up learning more about the vaccine.

“I didn’t really know that they were going to be talking about COVID-19, but it was a good thing that I went because I was able to get some answers to some questions that I had regarding the virus, and what steps we should take to ensure our health and safety of everyone,” Scott said.

While Scott still feels hesitant about getting vaccinated, she felt she benefited from being able to ask qualified health care workers about some of her fears. She mentioned that there is so much misconstrued information online, it’s difficult to tell what’s real.

She said she wished even more people were there to learn more and have their questions answered.

“One takeaway that I have with the event is to get involved,” Scott said. “We should continue to have these types of platforms.”

She appreciated Jay King sharing his story. He said he was wary of the vaccine at first, but ultimately got it because of his family. He urged others to do the same.

“This isn’t another government plot. This is not the Tuskegee syphilis experiment,” Jay said. “Those are things that were exclusive to the Black community. This affects the world.”