Sean Penn: “There’s more that all of us could do.”

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen May 18, 2020
Sean Penn

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When the COVID-19 health crisis hit California hard, Sean Penn was not going to stay at home and do nothing. He knew there was a need for help from his non-profit organization, CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), which he founded with Ann Lee in 2010. But Penn did not just write a check: he went out into the field to help administer thousands of COVID-19 tests focusing on the most disadvantaged in our communities – and he still does. We spoke to him about his community work during the health crisis.

There were many ways to help during the current pandemic, but CORE decided to help with testing. Why this approach?

Over the last ten years, we’ve had increasing experiences and opportunities for lessons learned to inform our response to emergency situations, from what happened post-earthquake in Haiti, to the cholera epidemic response, to a variety of other weather and social disturbances. CORE had already branched into the American hurricane belt some years ago, in terms of both indirect response implementation, as well as advocacy for preparedness. In all of those involvements, our approach was to come into communities and try to get to know them firsthand, asking those who know their community best, who know their infrastructures best, what gaps they saw that we may be able to fill. It was no different when we began COVID-19 response in Los Angeles.

How did you start the process?

We went to Governor Newsom, who initially pointed us to Mayor Garcetti, who linked us with the LAFD (Los Angeles Fire Department) to take over test sites. That expanded from working in Los Angeles to statewide projects with the governor’s office; we were helped by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was then complemented by the Arthur M. Blank Foundation for Atlanta, and then we were given a substantial partnering grant from Jack Dorsey's #StartSmall that is allowing us to expand visible and replicable models of government/NGO partnerships into other parts of the country, with a focus on marginalized communities.

Who are the people involved in the testing, and who do you collaborate with to make sure it is done safely and correctly?

Our initial and significant training came from LAFD and its medical branch. Now our trainers are equipped to train our own staff, but there is a constant learning process of how we can all work most efficiently.

How hands-on are you yourself?  Explain what a “normal” week during the pandemic looks like for you?

I’m the Mr. Magoo of disaster response. Fortunately, my CEO and co-founder, Ann Lee, is more wizard than Magoo and she can describe both my job and CORE’s job better than I can. But my day starts at 5:30 am, checking in with nationwide teams, coordinating with mayors, and drinking a lot of coffee. I head out to a variety of types of site visits, depending on where I’m headquartered at the time. Some days it’s a morning pep talk and a thank you to volunteers. Other days, I’m delivering Dunkin' Donuts, checking in with training and procurement centers, coordinating with local authorities, and all the while receiving too many texts and emails from my 62 best friends, and too few actionable support items than I would like or that CORE can take. I am asleep by midnight (usually).

How do you ensure that you are not yourself exposed to the virus and thus a “health threat” to others?

I used to comfort myself in emergency situations by telling myself that “only the good die young.” But I woke up to the COVID-19 pandemic finding I wasn’t all that young anymore. So, I’m pretty damn diligent on handwashing, masking, distancing, and otherwise sanitizing everything and everybody I get around.

You have become a significant player in the world of activism. Can you speak about the exact moment that motivated you to do something?

I prefer the word “citizenry” to “activism”. There’s more that all of us could do.

Where does the urge to help come from? Is it from your heart or your brain?

Hahaha! I’ll leave that answer to trolls and others.

What motivates you today?

Looking for true leaders and volunteers, which may be redundancy in terms.

Some people might say you are controversial. What is your comment on that?

Beats being part of the culture of complaint.

What is your main passion – your activism or your art?

For me, it’s the same thing. I don’t compartmentalize it.