In 1991, then 16-year-old Kianna Ramos-Baker was mourning the death of her brother, all while trying to fit in as the new kid at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis.
One day, a junior named Stacey Danner walked up to her and said, “‘Hey girl, what's your name?’”
Danner took Ramos-Baker under his wing that day because that's just how he was — he made friends everywhere, and saw potential in all of them.
“He said ‘I don’t want you to be sad anymore,’” Ramos-Baker recalls. “‘How about, I don't have any siblings, you'll be my sister and I'll be your brother?’"
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Ramos-Baker lost Danner — her surrogate brother of 30 years — to COVID-19 on July 11 at the age of 46, after a nearly two-month stand-off with the virus.
Danner's story peels back the layers of suffering COVID-19 has inflicted on communities of color in Minnesota and nationally — a pandemic that, through severe illness and death, has hit Minnesotans of color harder than white residents.
These very same communities are lagging in vaccination for a host of complicated reasons — access, trust and disinformation all play a role. Roughly half of Black Minnesotans are fully vaccinated, behind Asian, white and Latino Minnesotans according to a new survey from APM Research Lab, which is owned by MPR News’ parent company American Public Media.
Danner wavered on getting shots because he wasn't sure they were safe, a phenomenon borne out in the Research Lab’s survey: Among unvaccinated Black Minnesotans, about 40 percent are still deciding whether they want shots compared to 26 percent of white respondents.
State vaccine equity director and pediatrician Dr. Nathan Chomilo said vaccination gaps between white Minnesotans and communities of color are closing, but addressing vaccine hesitancy requires understanding why people of color feel betrayed by health care institutions in the first place.
“I’ve had patients ask me ‘How did they get a vaccine for this virus so fast, but we've been dealing with HIV in our community for decades and we haven't had a vaccine for it,’” Chomilo said. “‘How is all this free and accessible, widely available, yet we haven't been able to just get our basic health care needs met in the past?’”
Cool to be smart
Stacey Danner loved swimming and karaoke, traveling and comic books. In his music collection, R&B artist Al Jarreau mingled with English pop band Tears for Fears.
He studied widely, too — justice and peace studies, and sociology at the University of St. Thomas and then a master's degree in urban studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Friend Lorena Munoz said Danner's intellectual curiosity and intense work ethic were cultivated by his mother and grandparents, who raised him in north Minneapolis.
She said in college, Danner made it cool to be an intellectual.
"It was OK to be a straight-A person, it was OK not to go out to the club and stay in and engage in critical conversations about race, power structure, all of that from his dorm room,” Munoz said.
Kesha Tanabe also met Danner at St. Thomas. As a 19-year-old residential assistant, Tanabe said Danner created a campus-wide program to help students of color feel more comfortable within a largely white student body. Tanabe said it was an early example of how Danner would operate in the world as an adult.
“He did have a bit of magic this way. I thought of him as socially intelligent, revolutionary in the sense that he didn't think the status quo was a prescription, or a fait accompli. He really could come up with a new idea,” she said.
When Danner graduated in 1996, St. Thomas created an award in honor of his work.
Northside Pride to New Orleans
Danner's friends say his upbringing in north Minneapolis guided his career working at firms and for nonprofits that built wealth in communities of color and supported Black entrepreneurs.
Tessa Jackson worked with Danner in New Orleans to rebuild the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
She said Danner recognized that solar panel installation in low-income communities could help people save money on their utility bills, but the upfront installation costs were financially impossible.
So working with tax credit syndicators, Danner came up with a plan that would effectively eliminate those initial costs, making solar energy affordable.
"It's a great model nobody's thought about," Jackson said. "It tapped into his mindset about being innovative about thinking out of the box, being a solution-oriented person, and helping other people."
Terrall Lewis said that for all the time Danner put into his work, he put equal effort into his friendships. He was their cheerleader and he was never too busy to talk.
"He would listen to you, let you tell whatever your story was till the cows came home. Stace' would let you go through the whole thing for an hour, and then rework it back with you. And I'm like, 'My God, you got the patience of Job.’"
Without any living close relatives of his own, Tanabe said Danner was the glue that held together the "Odd Squad" — his chosen family of lawyers, activists, developers and artists who might not have met otherwise.
"He had a way of having difficult conversations about things like race and things like class and things like gender without saying, 'I won't ever be your friend, or I reject where you're coming from entirely, or you're irredeemable.' He resisted that, which is why the Odd Squad is so odd," she said.
High risk and vaccine hesitant
Some members of the Odd Squad tried to convince Danner to get a COVID-19 vaccine this spring.
He had diabetes, which put him at higher risk of contracting a severe case of COVID, so Ramos-Baker said Danner took precautions to protect himself while traveling for a new job.
Danner used his travel schedule as a reason to put off getting the vaccine.
But he was also hesitant to get a shot because he thought it hadn't been tested rigorously on Black people, said Ramos-Baker.
That perception is false, said state vaccine equity director Nathan Chomilo.
"That's one of the unfortunate misconceptions that is grounded in historical truth, but not for these vaccines,” he said.
Depending on the vaccine brand, between 9 and 15 percent of participants in studies identified as Black — more than most clinical trials for other drugs, said Chomilo.
Vaccine hesitancy is in part the byproduct of inequitable health care, he said, where many people of color don't have regular access to a doctor they trust.
"The first step in that is acknowledging that experience and saying, ‘You know, I'm sorry, you're right: The system failed you, the systems have not been designed for people that look like us,’” said Chomilo.
Within Danner's circle of friends — even those who watched him suffer in the hospital — vaccination remains divisive, igniting new fears that another member of their group could get sick and die.
Terrall Lewis said he hasn't gotten shots because he doesn't trust a society and its institutions that undervalue Black people like him — and that generations of police violence and economic marginalization underscore that mistrust.
“It's a lived trauma that hasn't stopped,” Lewis said. “Everywhere we go, we're reminded that your life is expendable. So what difference does it make?"
A 40 day vigil
For Danner, a vaccine likely would have made a difference — and for his friends who are vaccinated, they're hoping Danner's story sways more people to get shots.
After returning from a work trip in early May, Danner tested positive for COVID-19 and deteriorated quickly. He was admitted to the hospital. About a week later he was put on a ventilator and then ECMO, a device that oxygenates blood when the lungs can't. Ramos-Baker was given power of attorney authorizing her to make decisions on his behalf.
Danner’s friends kept vigil at his bedside for the next 40 days.
They hung pictures in his hospital room. Tanabe brought quilts from home to cover her friend. They trimmed his beard and filed his nails.
They did these things to show the hospital staff that this single Black man was loved — a step she doesn't think white people typically have to take to get good care, Ramos-Baker said.
"We had to humanize him, making sure people saw him as a person, as somebody who was a brother, a friend,” she said.
In the hospital, Danner had near death moments, but he always rallied.
July 11 started like any other day. Ramos-Baker came to Danner's hospital room. She turned on Al Jarreau's rendition of "Your Song," one of Danner's favorites.
Another friend came to visit, and they prayed over him.
"And I was like, 'You are so strong, and mighty. I am so proud of you,’” Ramos-Baker said. “And then he flatlined — he was just gone.”
The shock of that moment has started to wear off for Danner's friends.
They memorialized him this summer, gathering in matching Odd Squad T-shirts at DeLaSalle High School, where so many of Danner's friendships began.
And they started a scholarship in his honor with the Minneapolis YWCA to help kids learn to swim.
It's an idea they say Danner would be proud of because it brings together things he valued most: swimming, community investment, and his unshakable belief in the potential of people.