MINNEAPOLIS — In a corner cubicle of the Power of People Leadership Institute in north Minneapolis, nurse Kelly Robinson explained the basics of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Lazarus Ra.

“You may feel a little soreness where I'm giving you the shot, and that may last 24-48 hours,” Robinson said.

Robinson is the president of the Twin Cities chapter of Black Nurses Rock, a national volunteer network aimed at both expanding career opportunities for Black nurses and making health care more equitable.

She and three other nurses volunteer to vaccinate formerly incarcerated people like Ra, 31, who readily pulled up his sleeve for the shot.

“That ain’t nothing,” he said as Robinson gently slid the needle into his arm.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

What's playing out at the Power of People Leadership Institute is a snapshot of how Minnesota hopes to reach more communities of color, people who are getting vaccinated at a slower pace than white Minnesotans.

State and local health departments have partnered with nonprofits and other organizations, including Black Nurses Rock, to vaccinate pockets of people who are at once at higher risk of being exposed to and getting severely ill from COVID-19, and who face an array of hurdles in getting the vaccine — unreliable transportation, a lack of time, and for some, a justifiable distrust of medicine rooted in generations of systemic racism.

‘Hunters and gatherers’

Black Nurses Rock member nurse Lily Thomas tells Chinaker Kinapoe to keep his vaccine card and return in four weeks for a second dose at a vaccine clinic at the Power of People Leadership Institute in Minneapolis on March 19, 2021. (Evan Frost / MPR News)
Black Nurses Rock member nurse Lily Thomas tells Chinaker Kinapoe to keep his vaccine card and return in four weeks for a second dose at a vaccine clinic at the Power of People Leadership Institute in Minneapolis on March 19, 2021. (Evan Frost / MPR News)

Since vaccines became available in Minnesota, Black Nurses Rock has been involved in numerous efforts to get more people — and particularly people of color — vaccinated, quickly.

"We are hunters and gathers,” Robinson said. “We are looking for people who need to get the vaccine."

That includes Ra and other recently incarcerated people Robinson is helping to vaccinate at Power of People Leadership Institute.

Since getting out of prison last June, Ra has been spending a lot of time at the Institute’s offices, figuring out employment and navigating the emotional ups and downs of reintegrating into society.

“This organization pretty much empowers people to understand they have the capacity and power to change their situation,” he said. “It helped me a lot."

Ra said just knowing where he'd be getting the vaccine and who would be there played a big role in his decision to get the shot — even though he carries some distrust of medical and governmental institutions.

“At first I was skeptical,” he said. “I know the history of America. But I trust my brothers."

Don’t just show up with a vaccine

Black Nurses Rock chapter president Kelly Robinson speaks with two friends after they got their vaccine at a clinic at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, where she also attends church, in St. Paul on March 18, 2021. (Evan Frost / MPR News)
Black Nurses Rock chapter president Kelly Robinson speaks with two friends after they got their vaccine at a clinic at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, where she also attends church, in St. Paul on March 18, 2021. (Evan Frost / MPR News)

Robinson said staging vaccine clinics in familiar, easy-to-get-to locations is a key part of her group's role in the state's vaccination plans.

But Robinson said it's not enough to just be convenient. Providing accurate information about the vaccine from a trusted source is essential, too.

"People talk about hesitancy. It's like 'No, they want education. Don't just show up with a vaccine. Tell me what it's about. Talk to me, tell me what the options are,’” she said.

Power of People Leadership Institute co-founder and president Verna Cornelia Price was among those who needed convincing.

"I wasn't really, really big on the vaccine,” she said. “I was really hesitant, and I had a whole lot of questions about it."

But Verna Price and her husband, Institute director Shane Martin Price, were both interested in making the vaccine available to their program participants. They heard about Black Nurses Rock from the city of Minneapolis and eventually met with Robinson about setting up a clinic.

During that visit, Verna Price said Robinson helped her come around to the vaccine.

"I needed to hear from someone who looked like me. A brown, African American person, professional, in the medical field, to explain this thing to me,” she said.

Shane Price said that he sees the vaccine clinic they're doing that day as a model for more health-related clinics in the future.

"I think this is the way this thing is going to roll out,” Price said. “These pop-up clinics are going to happen so people have access and equity to medicine, and to the vaccine.”

‘On the bus with us’

Robinson sees the same, long game.

She started Black Nurses Rock in early 2020, with just a few volunteers.

The pandemic that's shaken the state since has not only allowed her group to grow quickly — it now has 59 volunteers — but allowed it to develop relationships with key health stakeholders in Minnesota in a short period of time, including the state Health Department, Ramsey County and the city of Minneapolis, and with Black churches and nonprofits that help people of color.

“Every time we encounter a new partner, they're on the bus with us,” Robinson said. “What that looks like is a voice, a trusted messenger. We want to be the one that brings about some of the concerns from a health care perspective as well as an African American perspective."

And that means that Black Nurses Rock's work won't end with vaccinations.

When Robinson and her team return in mid-April to give this group their second shots, they'll come equipped with other resources — information on how to access health care, how to find housing support — an effort to close equity gaps on all fronts by connecting people with services they need.

“It’s all about meeting the needs of the people,” Robinson said.