Everyone in Panola, Alabama, an unincorporated parcel of Sumter County, knows Dorothy Oliver. She owns the general store, a trailer with a flashing rainbow “OPEN” sign. And when people come in that store, Oliver asks, “Hey, darling, how you doing?” Then she follows it with: “You got your shot yet?” (Note: plenty of real Southerners talk this way. It’s not a mark of class or education).
Oliver’s an anti-COVID crusader. With the help of county commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson, she’s managed to get 94% of her town’s about 400 residents vaccinated against COVID-19. That rises to 100% of people over 65 years old.
“Well, we in this rural area, we got to fight for our life, you know, with this Covid going on. You know it changed everything,” she tells The New Yorker in an original documentary. As Russ-Jackson says, “I just felt like I had to do it because the government, nobody does enough in this area. This area here is majority Black. Kind of puts you on the back burner. That’s just it. I mean, you don’t have to put nothing else with that. That’s just it. I don’t have to elaborate on that one.”
Panola didn’t have a a vaccination clinic. The nearest shot available was 39 miles away — and as Dorothy Oliver points out in the documentary, that’s one-way — and many residents of Panola don’t have cars. So she and Russ-Jackson teamed up to bring a pop-up clinic to Panola. But they only agreed to come if Oliver had forty people willing to get the shot.
She set to work.
Dorothy Oliver started calling people. “I’m just working on this COVID-19 shot thing,” she tells one person. “Cause you know they ain’t coming unless we got enough. So I’m trying to call around and just see… do you know anyone else who might not have it?” She rolled up into people’s yards, car honking, asking them to sign up. She told MSNBC, “I would talk to everybody who comes in the store… and let them know how serious it is that they all go and get that vaccination.”
“So many of them lost their brother, their sister, their mama, and their daddy,” she tells The New Yorker. But Oliver won’t be losing any of her people. It’s impossible to know how many lives she’s saved through her vaccination campaign.
So How Did Oliver Do It?
“It’s in my heart to do what I need to help people,” Oliver told The Montgomery Advisor. As one of the documentarians, Jeremy S. Levine, told MSNBC, “We’re all at each other’s throats, and instead Dorothy meets people where they’re at, she answers questions, she jokes around, and honestly I’ve never seen anyone so incredible at persuading people.” She said, “I saw the seriousness of the disease… and I let them know how serious it is that they go get that vaccination. So I didn’t have any problem. Everybody just worked right with me.”
But Dorothy Oliver talked to people with serious reservations — the government’s track record in medicine, Black people, and experimental drugs is nothing short of horrific, all the way from the founding of gynecology to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and beyond. “Some of ’em will say, ‘I haven’t gotten it, I’m scared,'” she said on MSNBC. “Some’ll say, ‘I’m just gonna wait for somebody else… and see how it goes.'” One man tells her on the documentary that he’s heard it makes people sick.
So how’d she get a whopping 94% of her people vaccinated when Alabama has a vaccination rate somewhere around a dismal 36.6%?
“I guess because I’ve been working in the community on other occasions,” she says in the documentary, “and they know I’m serious, and they know I’ll do what I say I’m gonna do, and they know if I say it, it’s going to be okay to do it.” In other words, Oliver knows her people; Oliver’s an experienced community organizer, and people trust her.
But more than that, she’s kind. She jokes and teases. And she doesn’t take no for an answer. But most of all, as she told The New Yorker, “I just be nice to them,” she said. “I don’t go at them saying, ‘You gotta do that.’ ” As Levine told MSNBC, “She would never talk down to to people, she would never yell at anyone, and I feel like this is what we’re all so used to.”
She knew everyone, and she was showed them they should get vaccinated because she was concerned for their health and the health of their community. “Dorothy meets people with love,” the documentarians told MSNBC.
That’s a novel way to get people vaccinated. Stop shouting, stop accusing, and start meeting them where they are — with love.
And it worked.
What Can We Learn From Her?
Maybe we all need to be a little more like Dorothy Oliver. Each side of the vaccination debate has become strident and entrenched. Hell, I told someone it was “stupidity” to protest vaccine passports on Facebook the other day, and to “stop acting like a child.” Then I blocked her, because I have zero tolerance for hesitancy or anti-vax sentiment. She messaged me, called me names, and blocked me from Messenger. My profile picture, for a long time, said, “Get your vaccine, you fucking fuck.”
I have not persuaded anyone to get vaccinated.
Oliver, on the other hand, steamrolled through every kind of opposition to get people vaccinated. Maybe we need to tone down our stridency and meet people where they are. As hard as it can be to show sympathy and understanding for people who believe Dr. Mercola, who think vaccine passports are a civil rights issue, or who worry that that vaccine will make them sick, maybe we need to start. Maybe we should listen instead of yelling.
Oliver listened. Oliver was kind. And Oliver saved lives.
Vaccinations Are A Civil Rights Issue
And more than just kindness, we need to realize that COVID-19 vaccinations are a civil rights issue. Black vaccine hesitancy, as The New Yorker notes, has been discussed over and over in the media, and we know that Black communities have been hit harder with Covid than their white counterparts. But we haven’t addressed issues of availability.
Many people in Panola wanted the vaccine, but they didn’t know where to go or they couldn’t get there. “They were struck by how many people had put off vaccination for logistical rather than ideological reasons,” says The New Yorker. Levine says they regularly heard people in Panola 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?”
How many other rural communities have Black folks asking the same question? As a whole, South Carolina is 46.6% vaccinated. Bamburg county, a small, mostly Black area, is only 43.25% vaccinated. Colleton County, a rural, mostly Black county outside of Charleston, has only a 42% vaccination rate. It’s a small percentage in difference, but those decimal points are peoples’ lives. How many of them remain unvaccinated because they couldn’t reach a clinic?
Maybe, like Oliver, we should be a little kinder. Maybe like her we should take more responsibility in our communities rather than screaming invectives at one another.
And maybe we should realize that vaccination rates may be about more than hesitancy. The right to an easily available, free COVID-19 shot is a civil rights issue. It ought to be treated, as Oliver knows, with the seriousness it deserves.